Gritty, cool and unsentimental, Richard Ayoade's dramedy is unlike anything British cinema has produced in eons
Set in Swansea in what looks like the 1980s, Submarine is a hysterical coming-of-age drama shot from the skewed perspective of a precocious 15-year-old.
Preoccupied with losing his virginity by his next birthday and stopping his mother having an affair with a neighbourhood mystic, Oliver Tate’s near total self-belief is tendered by the fact that he’s a rather unpopular and mean person.
Tate (played by breakthrough talent Craig Roberts) may be an unfamiliar protagonist for a comedy, but in the hands of first-time director, Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace) the character comes across as oddly charming.
Loosely based on Joe Dunthorne’s wry book of the same name, Ayoade has created a picture that feels defiantly unlike anything British cinema has produced in eons: gritty, cool and unsentimental, with the kind of quirky story more commonly found in an American setting, not in dilapidated Wales and certainly not with such a selfish central figure.
Cinephile Ayoade employs a range of stylistic techniques involving tracking shots and rapid changes of scene that take their cue from French New Wave, but it’s through the series of internal monologues that we learn most about our flawed hero.
Tate’s encyclopaedic nature is revealed in his penchant for looking up wonderfully weird words (‘flagitious, adj, wickedly shameful’ for the day he joined in schoolyard bullying). This eternal curiosity is inherited in part from his marine biologist father (Noah Taylor), who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
With suitcase in hand - wearing a duffel coat and with bags under his eyes - Tate’s self-aware monologue gives an insight into the development of his relationship with the rebellious yet vulnerable Jordana (Yasmin Paige).
Not appearing to be particularly attracted to the eczema-strafed pyromaniac, Tate nevertheless ranks Jordana as ‘attainable’ due to her own relative unpopularity. Not that she is especially romantic either, photographing their first kiss for blackmail purposes. Tate subsequently informs us that the kiss tasted of ‘milk, polo mints and Dunhill International’.
It is with this comment that the overly-analytical teenager sums up the murky mix of innocence and ignorance of becoming an adult that Submarine depicts so well.
Tate’s deluded views on relationships draw a striking resemblance to those held by Holden Caulfield: knowingly, Catcher In The Rye is placed in the stack of recommended reading Tate's his new girlfriend along with King Lear and Nietzsche.
In steps Graham T Purvis, a life-coach with a fondness for New Age and his old flame, Tate’s mother (Sally Hawkins). Played with panache by Paddy Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes, Hot Fuzz) the largely improvised turn provides a burst of light to balance the dark comedy.
By the film’s third act, Tate’s plans to bed Jordana begin to unravel. It’s at this juncture that Arctic Monkey, Alex Turner's striped-back soundtrack blends with shots of Wales’ beautiful scenery to give Submarine the poignancy not found in similar American productions.
In anyone else’s hands, this Warp and Film4 backed project might have found itself pigeonholed alongside cult indies like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore or Jared Hess's Napoleon Dynamite. Instead, Ayoade manages to create a perfectly accessible film that transcends genre. A great reminder of how fantastically stupid even intelligent teenagers can be, despite their opinion of Nietzsche.
Submarine runs at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast from March 18 - 31.
Photo credit: Dean Rodgers