Adolescent angst surfaces
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 10, 2011
Oliver Tate, the precocious 15-year-old hero of the mostly charming movie “Submarine” and the 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne on which it’s based, is prone to startling assessments. Here’s one, made after he experiences the second kiss of his young life (courtesy of someone with the wonderful yet banal name of Jordana Bevan): “Her mouth tasted like milk, Polo mints and Dunhill International.”
That vaguely unappetizing yet hyper-observant description — much like the film in which it appears — is an incongruous thing, suggesting something at once old-fashioned, fresh and even a little thrilling. Coming from Oliver (Craig Roberts), who provides the film’s wry, first-person narration, the sharpness of the connoisseurship is more than a little weird, considering just how clueless he really is.
But give the kid a break.
Oliver, who lives in the Welsh seaside town of Swansea with his parents, Lloyd (a mopey Noah Taylor) and Jill (a chilly Sally Hawkins), is just one in a long line of cinematic adolescent misfits, starting with “Harold and Maude’s” Harold Chasen (Bud Cort), running through “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and culminating in “Youth in Revolt’s” Nick Twisp (Michael Cera). Like all of them, Oliver’s an oddball, a grandiose, bookish and slightly morbid kook. “I suppose it’s a bit of an affectation,” he tells us at one point, apropos of nothing, “but I often read the dictionary. The word of the day is ‘flagitious,’ which means shamefully wicked.”
The first feature from writer-director Richard Ayoade, a British comedian and actor, opens with Oliver in hot pursuit of Jordana (Yasmin Page), who is as unromantic as he is romantic. That they eventually share a kiss — and more — tells you he’s not a total loser. But his other preoccupations — namely to thwart the affair he imagines his mother to be having with New Age energy healer Graham (a mulletted Paddy Considine) — suggest a grip on reality less firm than his commitment to vocabulary-building.
For much of the film, this is very funny and fairly original stuff, though “Submarine” starts to run aground about the time that Jordana and Oliver’s relationship does. This is about two-thirds of the way in, after they’ve been a couple for — what? — all of a month or so. It’s hard to tell. When you’re 15, you can pack a year’s worth of psychodrama into a few weeks.
Eventually, Ayoade gets “Submarine” back on track. Set in an unspecified time period characterized by VCRs, typewriters and mix tapes, the movie feels authentic, even if the music (by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner) isn’t exactly period. Equally authentic-feeling is Oliver’s awkward, bumbling path to maturity and self-awareness. He’s a freak — and at times it’s hard to imagine that he was really raised by Taylor and Hawkins’s dishwater-dull characters — but he’s a lively and recognizable one.
A word about that title. In the movie poster, Oliver is shown up to his eyeballs in what appears to be water. And water is a prominent leitmotif, with scenes of submersion occurring again and again. (Oliver’s father is also a marine biologist.) But there is no actual submarine in the film, other than a brief reference to the discovery of ultrasound, in World War II, as a means of locating underwater objects such as submarines.
On one obvious level, Oliver is in over his head. With Jordana, with whatever is going on between Jill and Graham, with life in general. But in his passing reference to ultrasound and submarines, Oliver also alludes to how we are all a little bit like submarines ourselves, unable to ever see into one another’s hearts, except by an ultrasound-like guesswork.
That guesswork has a name. It’s called insight, and it only comes with age, and from making mistakes. There are no really profound insights in “Submarine” except this: That you’ll never really know another person unless you’re willing to take the plunge.
Contains obscenity, bullying and sexual content.