Submarine chronicles the misadventures of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), an eccentric Swansea lad both too clever for his own good and not wise enough to navigate the emotional waters of family and first love. A hopeless romantic, Oliver falls for an unromantic girl and ends up breaking her heart because he’s too busy trying to keep his melancholy parents together.
Writer-director Ayoade has reshaped Joe Dunthorne’s rambling 2008 novel into a more traditional narrative. As in the book, Oliver narrates, but the smartassery that gets so irritating on the page is countered onscreen by Roberts’s vulnerable presence — he plays Oliver with a permanently alarmed expression that shows how lost, bemused, and frightened this boy is beneath all his witty talk. Jordana (Yasmin Paige) attracts him because, with her square jaw, bangs, and ubiquitous red coat, she is obviously far more assured than he is. Meanwhile, the marriage of his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor, both hilarious and sad) is threatened by the arrival of an obnoxious self-help guru (Paddy Considine) who is also an ex-flame of his mum. Oliver’s efforts to deal with these challenges are over-elaborate and tragically misguided in a manner endemic to young men with more book smarts than common sense.
Ayoade, a veteran of British TV comedy making his feature debut as a director, has given Submarine a highly stylized feel, with freeze frames, formal compositions, chapter titles, cutaways, and deadpan voiceovers. Apart from a few references to the internet, the film exists in a retro timewarp of selective artifacts: mop haircuts, rotary phones, VHS tapes, Serge Gainsbourg records, and a movie theater showing Crocodile Dundee. (Then again, for all I know, that’s just Swansea.) All of this, along with the funny/sad tone and precocious hero, will remind viewers of Wes Anderson films. But Submarine is looser and more natural than Anderson’s work, and more accommodating of genuine emotion than anything he’s done since Rushmore. And instead of raiding his record collection for the soundtrack, Aoyade has commissioned original music from Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, whose wistful chamber-pop songs tie the film together in the manner of the best single-artist scores, such as Cat Stevens’ for Harold and Maude.
Submarine has been well received at festivals and in Britain, and has the makings of an art-house hit in this country. Whether or not it will strike a chord with mainstream American audiences remains to be seen.