On the surface, Submarine sounds like a typical coming-of-age comedy. Hyper-articulate 15-year-old misfit Oliver Tate (newcomer Craig Roberts) navigates toward consummating his relationship with his borderline juvenile-delinquent girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige) while valiantly - make that deviously - attempting to salvage his parents' marriage.
But those of you seeking mindless summer fare beware - there are emotional depth charges. They do not flatten, but actually uplift the effervescent humour of Richard Ayoade's feature-directing debut, helping make Submarine one of the most irresistible films of the year so far.
We have seen the likes of Oliver before. This we are told by the protagonist himself, a big fan of The Catcher in the Rye. He has the tenacious can-do spirit of Ferris Bueller but is otherwise a duffle-coat-wearing square living in Swansea, Wales.
Ayoade nudges Joe Dunthorne's nineties-set novel, on which the film is based, somewhere into the mid-eighties to exploit the era's analog charms - console TVs, mix cassettes and handwritten notes. This is around the same time coming-of-age movie maestro John Hughes gave Ferris a day off, but unlike his contemporary, Oliver seems oblivious to mainstream pop culture. New Wave bands have not hit his bedroom walls, which instead sport a Woody Allen poster.
It's clear his clinically depressed marine biologist dad Lloyd (thickly bearded Noah Taylor) and seriously uptight mom Jill (bob-haired Sally Hawkins) are in a prolonged romantic lull. Oliver, ever the observant only child, notes they have not been dimming the bedroom light. His distress turns to panic when Jill's old flame Graham (mullet-sporting Paddy Considine), a kind of mystic self-help guru with a garishly painted panel van, moves in next door and gets all chummy.
Oliver is not simply the narrator of his unfolding life story: He is the misunderstood hero of an ambitious work-in-progress. This includes speculative asides, such as his highly stylized vision of how the town (his female schoolmates in particular) will mourn his untimely death. Later on, he begins to put some of his clever scenarios into action but is rudely surprised when real life does not deliver his intended outcomes.
Oliver's extra-curricular activities are supervised by the assured hand and eye of Ayoade, the British TV comedy triple threat best known for his role in The IT Crowd, who has also been a series comedy writer-director and helmed music videos for Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The visual sensibility of Submarine is kind of Quadrophenia meets French New Wave, which lends a timeless quality - as does Andrew Hewitt's score and, in particular, a handful of original songs written and performed by Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner.
But Submarine is really propelled by the nuanced performances of its thoroughly excellent cast. Every single character has outlandish hair, strange personality quirks, odd jobs or hobbies. These things could have easily resulted in a mass outbreak of broad comedy, but the actors play their roles completely straight. In Submarine, you truly ache through the awkward moments - even as you're laughing out loud.
- Directed and written by Richard Ayoade
- Starring Craig Roberts, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine and Yasmin Paige
- Classification: 14A
Submarine opens Friday June 10 in Toronto, June 17 in Vancouver and June 24 in Montreal.
Special to The Globe and Mail