8/10 Fluorescent Adolescents
Richard Ayoade, please make more movies.
Submarine is about a teenage boy from Wales who’s never had a girlfriend before. Not long after we meet him, he starts to fall for a girl in his class. He’s extremely awkward and endearing about the whole thing, she’s not so much, but eventually they start going steady and he tries his best to make sure he doesn’t lose her. All the while, he comes to realize that his parents’ marriage is slowly falling apart and that the new neighbor next door is trying to steal his mom away from his dad. In order to prevent this from happening, he begins taking measures to breathe new life into their stale marriage because they’re certainly not making the effort.
So it’s a case of first loves and crappy marriages. Not exactly uncharted territory in the world of film, nor is it always a sure thing, and that’s not the best foot to get off on. See, the downside of having to watch so many damn movies it only gets that much easier to start comparing them to the strengths and weaknesses of others that ring as being similar. Aside from the misleading title that probably turned away as many people as it intrigued, Submarine had its work cut out from the start. But the fact that this has all been done before is ultimately one of the many things that makes it so special.
It’s the debut effort from British comedian-turned-director Richard Ayoade, and as you can probably guess from the first sentence of this review, the man is good. I know he’s done some music videos and TV work before, but what he does here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, especially for such a dialogue-driven movie. To give you loose idea of what it’s like, imagine Rushmore, Scott Pilgrim, and (500) Days of Summer, now imagine them as one with J.D. Salinger yelling “Action!” The deadpan wisdom of Wes Anderson, the youthful energy of Edgar Wright, and the storybook magic of Marc Webb – it’s all there, it’s all Ayoade, and growing up has never been this easy on the eyes.
From a visual standpoint, there’s a lot going on here. The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Tate, a wallflower of sorts who acts older than he is, and Oliver tends to daydream a lot. Most directors would just let Oliver ramble and go on filming what they’re filming, but Ayoade goes one mile further by visualizing everything Oliver’s talking about from make-believe funeral services for his hypothetical death, to the make-believe movie about his romance with Jordana Bevan called Two Weeks of Love-Making. It’s wild to watch and it’s made with an incredible amount of care and intention that does wonders when it comes to putting the audience in Oliver’s shoes. And unbeknownst to me, Wales is apparently knock-your-pants-off gorgeous. Lucky for us, Ayoade knows all about it, uses it to his advantage right on through to the final seconds, and those last seconds sure are something.
But you can’t make an old movie seem new with a nothing but a paint job, and that’s where Ayoade’s script comes in. The reason this coming-of-age adaptation stands out is because it doesn’t feel like an adult writing from a kid’s perspective. Oliver’s weird, no one really understands him, and he doesn’t really understand anyone else even though it’s his top priority at all times. But by the same token, teenage Aiden was pretty weird himself and a lot of what Oliver says hits really close to home as I think back to my high school days fueled by general confusion and a healthy fear of girls. On top of that, no one’s making apologies for Oliver, nor is Oliver making apologies for himself. Grown-ups might lose sight of it at some point or other, but kids have a lot on their plates and figuring it all out is very trial-and-error process. That’s what this movie’s about, that’s what Oscar’s about, and watching him go through it all for the first time is endlessly engaging.
And then there’s the cast, and I’ve got nothing but compliments. I’m crazy about Craig Roberts and that permanent look of concerned yearning he brings to Oliver; Yasmin Paige is a firecracker as his main squeeze, Jordana; Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins are wonderfully understated and totally odd as Oliver’s parents; and Paddy Considine is a freakin’ trip as the strangest man in all of Wales. Everyone’s got their own thing going on and they all do a great job of sticking to it no matter what’s going on in their lives. Very funky approach, but it’s a very funky movie to begin with.
Alright, enough of the pros, onto the cons. The only reason I didn’t give this movie a 9 isn’t so much a fault of the Ayoade or his cast, but rather my lack of familiarity with Welsh accents. The characters tend to talk pretty fast here, and while it absolutely works in regards to capturing a tone, it’s a bummer when you can only catch 75% of what’s coming out of their mouths. Again, not their fault, and it’s not even all that frustrating since my gut reaction was to just start the movie over again and listen twice as hard rather than knock the cast for speaking in their native tongues. Yes, this hardly even counts as a con in the slightest, but it’s tough to credit a movie as a whole when you miss out on that much dialogue.
And this soundtrack…good gravy, is this a soundtrack. The whole thing is made up of six original tunes by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, and if you’re not familiar with Arctic Monkeys, then you’re missing out. But aside from how the songs hold up on their own right out of context, the way they’re married with the events of the movie is flat. out. perfection. What Simon & Garfunkel did for The Graduate, that’s what Turner does for Submarine. It doesn’t hurt that Turner and Roberts are dead ringers, but this really does sound like the soundtrack to Oliver’s life, which also ties into the excerpts from Two Weeks of Love-Making. It’s hard to describe what makes this different from Trent Reznor’s work on The Social Network or Jonny Greenwood’s on There Will Be Blood, but if I was stuck with one word, I’d go with “organic.”
Thanks to positive suggestions from trustworthy nerds, I was expecting good things from Submarine, I just had no idea what those things would be. What I ended up getting was something truly outstanding, something that resonated with me while I was watching it and has only gotten better in the 24 hours I’ve been thinking about it. Despite the Verdict I gave it, there were more than a few times where I wanted to give this a 9 because it’s movies like these that deserve recognition. I could go on about how floored I was by the way Ayoade transformed such a simple premise into such a refreshing, funny, and real experience that some veteran film makers try their whole lives to achieve, but the long and short of it is that Submarine is a trip you can’t let someone else take for you. Trust me, you’ve been here before, but never like this.