If you're a fan of quirky indie films such as 'Harold and Maude' or anything by quirky indie director Wes Anderson, then first-time director Richard Ayoade's 'Submarine' is for you. As for the rest of us, better to find something more rooted in a sensible, historical reality. This is not to say that Mr. Ayoade is not without talent. His background is in music video as well as being well known for his comic performance on a British TV show, 'The IT Crowd'. Ayoade does wonders with the camera, turning his Welsh urban landscape into a veritable palette of most inviting sights and sounds.
Unfortunately, Ayoade drew his inspiration from the 2008 novel of the same name, by Joe Dunthorne. While I haven't read the novel, I'm told that the film sticks fairly closely to the novel's plot, which features the unlikeable protagonist, Oliver Tate (played by Craig Roberts, who bears a striking resemblance to another famous quirky character, Bud Cort, of 'Harold and Maude' fame). Roberts has Oliver offering up an almost deadpan, monosyllabic delivery throughout the film, which some may find to be cool or amusing, but for me it's symptomatic of Submarine's overall monotonous tone.
Submarine's main problem is that it's protagonist, Oliver, is not endearing at all. Most 'coming-of-age' stories feature protagonists who are basically good people with one characteristic flaw. In Oliver's case, it's the opposite: most of his actions are cruel and he fails to have his grand epiphany until the film's denouement.
Set in the mid-80s in Wales, we're introduced to Oliver as he's fantasizing what his community's response would be, had he passed away at his current age of fifteen. If that isn't morbid enough, it gets worse when Oliver decides to impress Jordana, a schoolmate he has a crush on, by bullying another overweight schoolmate, Zoe, who ends up falling into a pond as a result of Oliver's taunts. To make matters worse, Oliver types up a manual for Zoe, advising her how not to be a victim and delivers it to her only friend, only to discover that Zoe has left school and moved as a result of all the bullying.
Oliver and Jordana become victims of bullying themselves, after Jordana takes Polaroid pictures of Oliver and her kissing, and distributes them to classmates in order to make an ex-boyfriend jealous. As a result of their new found isolation, the two become closer. While well-intentioned, Oliver's continuous clueless actions cannot be excused because he's old enough to know right from wrong. At one point, after reading a book that offers the opinion that children are able to cope with death better as a result of experiencing the death of their own pets, Oliver considers poisoning Jordana's dog so that she can cope with her mother's impending death from a recent terminal cancer diagnosis. Oliver alienates Jordana further when he decides it's a better idea to leave Jordana alone as she copes with her stricken mother in the hospital.
The second part of the 'Submarine' plot involves Oliver's suspicions that his mother has been having an affair with next-door neighbor Graham Purvis, a new-age Guru, who peddles a wacky 'system' involving emotions and the color spectrum. Oliver's Dad is a depressed marine biologist who hardly seems upset when Oliver informs him that his mother might be having an affair. Oliver engages in the creepy surveillance of his mother and Graham at a New Year's Eve party at the beach. Later, he spies Graham and his mother entering Graham's trailer together and assumes the worst. There's more bad conduct from Oliver when he gets drunk and attempts to trash Graham's home, before passing out.
It's supposed to be funny when Oliver's parents coddle the wayward Oliver after the break-in as well as the mother admitting that she gave Graham a 'hand job', but at the same time indicating that she and her husband were reconciling (remember, anything can happen in a movie with 'quirky' characters!).
After all of Oliver's troublesome conduct during the film, director Ayoade wants us to conclude that "youths will be youths". Somehow, all the bad behavior is not so bad after all, since clueless Oliver was well-intentioned at the same time. Oliver's 'reward' at film's end is the implied reconciliation with love interest, Jordana. But there is little remorse from Oliver, who really needs to make up for all his bad conduct, especially the bullying he engaged in with his formerly besieged and ostracized classmate.
For all those who are enamored with these type of films featuring 'quirky' characters, I can only point out that they seem to operate in their own separate but dubious moral universe. Admire 'Submarine' for its neat cinematography and clever editing, but please recognize that such tomes add nothing to the pantheon of true art house fare.
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