Submarine (2010)

25 March 2011

Richard Ayoade's watchable directorial debut feature Submarine makes a virtue of a not particularly likeable protagonist and his even less likeable love interest, and as such, follows in the footsteps of another coming-of-age comedy from last year, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

If that film was, in aesthetic terms at least, exhausting and exhilarating in the same way David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees (2004) was, Ayoade's is similar in feel and texture to the films of another American director of Russell's generation, Wes Anderson. Anderson's films have recurring elements of visual and character comedy often based around morose or self-pitying people; Ayoade's film, adapted by him from Joe Dunthorne's 2008 novel, concentrates on Welsh teenage schoolboy Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he falls in love with classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and tries to save his parents' (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor, the latter from Anderson's Life Aquatic) failing marriage.

If Submarine is effective in making light of the kinds of traumatic ebbs and flows that come with the territory of growing up, though, it is effective precisely because it allows itself to subscribe to certain stereotypes. If  Ayoade manages to provide critical distance to the playground bullying scenes for instance (and the if is open to debate), they don't ever feel real. Granted, bullying certainly isn't the issue here, but the scenes in question suffer from a clich├ęd flatness; what makes bullying so harmful to its victims is its essential underhandedness, its denial of any outlet to the victim for speaking out.

In contrast, the kind of bullying that happens here - as a curious way of bringing together young Oliver and Jordana (he impresses her by joining in a game of Piggy in the Middle, only to go too far and end up pushing the victim into a deep puddle) - is the cinematic kind, where everyone's in on it and the act itself is just an aesthetic shorthand for "school life". That is, it leaves the vague impression of things without ever really getting round to painting them honestly. It's like a better shot, aesthetically more intricate episode of The Inbetweeners.

But what else is to be expected of a film whose main character is that familiarly semi-nerdish boy who can't quite communicate his feelings to anyone - one of his and Jordana's rules as a couple is "no emotions (gay)" - but who takes pleasure even so in the linguistically weird? In her review of the film for Sight & Sound, Isabel Stevens likens the appeal of Oliver as a narrator to that of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye: "the mundane details of pubescence often benefit from enhancement, and [...] self-involved teens in possession of a skewed perceptive outlook and a singular vocabulary have a knack of talking their way into our hearts." But Stevens crucially notes that while Holden's vocabulary is his own, Oliver is addicted to the dictionary, and literally chooses Words of the Day, a character trait that allows for both his and the film's pretentions; he's one of the phonies Salinger's hero despises.

Ayoade is keen to drop the Salinger book into the film but doesn't quite earn sufficient space of its own. There's also a mildly annoying sense of cinematic nostalgia at work, most obviously in its unstated but blatant period setting that accomodates insulting notes passed around the classroom and the independent cinema that screens Eric Rohmer on a Thursday night.

Similarly, if Submarine's intertitles declare its debt to Godard and its final scene to Truffaut - with jump-cuts and freeze-frames paying further homage to the French New Wave - the film as a whole doesn't quite feel as spontaneous as those films. Despite some arresting imagery - making fine use of its industrial locations - its cutting, rhythm and chapterised narrative are just that: homages, with little further meaning.

Often, Wes Anderson's films are also eccentric and quirky in tone; but if 'quirky' was once as idiosyncratic as a word as the things it described, abuse and overuse have generally diluted any sense of meaning, and generally speaking, it has become a word to avoid. Submarine is watchable then, but it is also 'quirky'. Its humour is often literary, in the kind of non-sequitur approach to character: Oliver tells us in voice-over that he knew his father was feeling down once because he drank hot water with lemon from the same mug without washing it in between cups (obviously!). It's 'different', of course, in that immediately noticeable way. That is, 'different' in the same way Lady Gaga is 'different': not very different at all.