One of the great failures of some teen comedies is that it’s automatically assumed that their characters are likeable, even if they do all manner of unlikeable things. Consider the awful 2008 film Charlie Bartlett, in which Anton Yelchin played a high school kid who, in a desperate attempt to become popular, became a drug lord and a therapist for his classmates; the filmmakers wanted us to see the title character as a tragicomic hero, but he was so arrogant and bizarre that it was impossible to do so. What’s refreshing about Submarine is that no effort is made to elevate the characters to undeserving levels of praise. Even if a lot of what they do is unpleasant – and it certainly is – the simple fact is that they are the way they are. Perhaps they will grow from it. Or perhaps they won’t.
The film, adapted from the novel by Joe Dunthorne, tells the story of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a fifteen-year-old Welsh student who’s caught within his own delusions of grandeur. He thinks in very cinematic terms, and in an amusing early scene, he images what would happen if he were to suddenly die. He pulls out all the stops; classmates would weep, flowers would amass at the school gate, there would be a solemn candlelight vigil, and ultimately, he would miraculously be resurrected. He believes he’s a genius, an intellectual, and immensely popular when nothing could be further from the truth. He is, in fact, a pretentious, socially inept misfit whose methods are incredibly misguided. Example: To win the affections of his classmate, a girl named Jordana Bevan (Yasmine Paige), he goes along with the crowd and bullies an overweight girl.
Jordana, who has eczema and is always in a red overcoat, is a tough nut to crack. She’s a bit mischievous, detests anything even remotely romantic, and seems to enjoy lighting matches and committing mild forms of arson. They’re both sexually inexperienced, and yet she’s far more confident that he is, which is probably why she already has a boyfriend. When she photographs herself and Oliver kissing under a railroad bridge, it’s not out of love, but merely as a way to make her boyfriend jealous. Her feelings for Oliver begin to change, albeit tepidly, when he refuses to tell her boyfriend that she’s a slut – and keep in mind that Oliver is in a headlock, and when the fight is over, he has a bloody nose. As they walk home, they share a real kiss, and in Oliver’s mind, this means that she’s now his girlfriend. Is this actually the case? This is left a little obscure; when he asks her directly, her only reply is, “I’ll think about it.”
What’s indisputable is that their relationship is deepening. The same cannot be said for Oliver’s parents, and he knows this in part because he has been monitoring their sex life – or lack thereof – by the way he positions the dimmer switch in their bedroom. It’s also evident from the way they carry themselves. The father, a marine biologist (Noah Taylor), is emotionally withdrawn, pretty much to the point of almost complete nonexistence. His mother, who was once an aspiring actress but is now a nine-to-fiver (Sally Hawkins), can only understand her son with the help of a teen psychology book. She has grown a little too close, as least as far as Oliver is concerned, with her next-door neighbor and old friend, a new-age guru named Graham (Paddy Considine). He’s a crackpot who has no idea what he’s saying but seems to enjoy saying it anyway. Oliver is vested in keeping his parents’ marriage afloat, although his schemes are almost always misdirected.
Although languid, and perhaps a bit too dependent on indie clichés (none more prevalent than the unconventional romance between suffering teenagers), the film never fails to be interesting. Its cinematic touches – including shaky handheld cameras, lingering shots of characters’ faces, and the shift between traditional celluloid and Super 8 film stock – give it a look that can only be described as handmade. Not slapped together from spare parts, but lovingly crafted from the best available sources.
Its greatest achievement is in not forcing us to like the characters when they aren’t being likeable. There comes a point, for example, when, to emotionally prepare Jordana for a likelihood I will not reveal, Oliver plots to poison her dog. He got this idea from a self-help book, which stated that pets were useful tools in teaching children about death. Later on, when Jordana tells Oliver something in confidence, he states in a voiceover narration that he has lost her, for she has gone “gooey on the inside.” Gooey? As in “capable of human feeling”? Oh, how dare she? Submarine is intelligent in its assertion that teenagers are people in the act of becoming. They’re not limited to the conventional extremes of horny perverts, irredeemable bullies, awkward nerds, precocious leaders, or sensitive nurturers. Think about that the next time a masked killer hacks one of them to death with a machete.
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The Weinstein Company