Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate in "Submarine." (Dean Rogers, The Weinstein…)
Writer-director Richard Ayoade has the knack. A fresh and inventive cinematic voice, he's taken a subject that's been beaten half to death and brought it miraculously to life in his smart and funny debut feature, "Submarine."
Based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, "Submarine" is not exactly the first film willing to explore the coming of age of a teenage boy. But by grafting delightful cinematic wit and style and a fondness for the energy of the French New Wave onto the tale of a 15-year-old taking on life in a town in Wales, Ayoade makes us feel like it's never been told before. Which is exactly how it feels to young Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts).
Oliver, as he is quick to tell us himself in the film's rapid-fire, wall-to-wall voice-over, is an earnest, self-aware young person with a quirky sensibility, a fondness for reading the dictionary and a habit of thinking about situations more than he should.
So self-involved and prone to dramatization that he "wishes there was a film crew following my every move," Oliver goes all out in everything he does. When he imagines — and we see — his schoolmates mourning his unexpected early death, he includes priceless details such as a sign reading, "We Envy the Angels."
What makes "Submarine" especially successful is that under its clever comedy, genuine emotions are at play. Simultaneous with his inevitable attempt to hook up with the girl of his dreams, Oliver is trying to save his parents' floundering marriage, parallel tasks that end up evoking all the bittersweet colors of life.
The girlfriend challenge seems more straightforward at first, as Oliver focuses on classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) as his soul mate. A sarcastic, chain-smoking femme fatale with something of a Louise Brooks look about her, Jordana is also a bit of a pyromaniac who hates anything romantic. Clearly, a match made in heaven.
Films without number have tried their hand at teen romance, but "Submarine" is one of the best at capturing the uncapturable frenzy of adolescent infatuation, the awkwardness, angst and anxiety that Oliver confronts in his fitful attempts at being "the best boyfriend in the world."
Oliver's parents, as it turns out, present more of a challenge than Jordana. Impeccably played by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor, Jill and Lloyd Tate are too willfully neurotic for words, with Lloyd, an expert in obscure corners of marine biology, fighting depression as well as a marriage heading for the rocks.
The biggest boulder in sight is self-help guru/life coach Graham T. Purvis (Paddy Considine at his best), an old beau of Jill's who has unaccountably moved in next door. Inspired by a poster of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samouraï" on his bedroom wall, Oliver feels this is a challenge he cannot ignore, even if it means monitoring his parents' sex life.
"Submarine" is not only filled with cinematic references, including a joke about Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent "Passion of Joan of Arc" (really), but it is also made with so much intrinsically cinematic verve that the biggest compliment you can pay it is to say that it must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Though this is British filmmaker Ayoade's first feature, he has a background in both television comedy and music videos. His visual sense, aided by cinematographer Erik Wilson, is superb; his use of music (including an Andrew Hewitt score and songs by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys) is engaging; and his work with his fine actors is excellent across the board. Debut films come and debut films go, but "Submarine" is one to remember.