This review was originally published on January 22, 2011.
Every great Bildungsroman needs a kid – preferably precocious – dealing with bullies, insecurities, embarrassments, and parental drama. Most importantly, perhaps, young protagonists struggle with the exuberance and humiliation of first love. Submarine tackles all of the typical difficulties of youth but rarely falls into cliché traps of the genre. Yes, there are fluffy montages involving blissfully skipping teenagers, but these teenagers are pyromaniacs with eczema whose parents may or may not be having affairs with motivational speakers.
From the outset, the plot of Submarine sounds like other quirky but forgettable festival fare: Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a smart and quirky teenager who meets smart and quirky Jordana (Yasmine Paige). They, of course, fall in love (when Oliver refuses to call Jordana a slut at the hands of a bully). In the meantime, Oliver is dealing with his smart but quirky parents who are, of course, falling out of love. What’s nice about this film, though, is that director, Richard Ayoade, uses all these familiar tropes of coming-of-age films to structure something viewers feel they have never seen before, even if they have. A million times. Submarine manages to integrate levels of quirk into the genre that feels relevant, without becoming – like so many quirky coming-of-age stories before it – hyperbole (I’m looking at you, Mr. Dynamite).
The Observer called the Joe Dunthorne novel the film was based on “perfectly pitched.” I would be tempted to say the film follows suit were it not for a glaring departure. Paddy Considine, usually so compelling, was way overblown here, playing Graham, the wacky self-help guru, whose constant shadow boxing leads Oliver to refer to his character as a “ninja.” In one tired display, for example, Graham pushes his girlfriend to her knees, miming kung fu while getting blown. This character undermines the overall effect of the film, pushing a whimsical, intelligent story to its knees, much like his unfortunate girlfriend.
But if that sounds hilarious to you, then Submarine might not be your cup of tea. Except for a few outlandish scenes like this, the tone remains charming and funny while maintaining a refreshing level of maturity. Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor, especially, give simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious performances as Oliver’s estranged parents. Likewise, Craig Roberts emerges as a young, Bud Cort-esque performer to watch, successfully pulling off precociousness without smarminess.