I was predisposed to love Submarine, having fallen madly for the slow-paced acoustic dreamscape of the soundtrack, written and performed by Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys).
Luckily, Ayoade’s directorial debut is delicious. Our narrator is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), an intelligent, wistful, perplexed 15 year-old suffering through all the quintessential teenage preoccupations; school, how we fit in (and how we treat others who don’t), and most of all, sex and love (what we, our friends and our parents have of it).
Oliver wants it (sex and love), and thinks about the enigmatic Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) while listening to French provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (maybe the breathy Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus) and reading Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
After a few encounters, brushing against each other in the school hallway, long stares across the playground, a mutual session of teasing an “overweight” student (with whom Oliver secretly shared his first kiss), the star-crossed lovers’ meeting is arranged, a session of kissing in the muddy hollow under a busy bridge, replete with documenting polaroids.
Thus begins their romance, their pyromaniac dalliances with fireworks, sparklers, lighters and blowing things up captured on hazy Super 8, a bit of light and fire in this dark, damp, isolated Welsh town. The landscape is picturesque, the beach never far away and the sounds of crashing waves and seagull squawks are always flittering in and out of our ears. The setting too provides some perfect pathetic fallacy to mimic the dark, damp isolation of adolescence.
Life impinges on their bubble, with Oliver’s parents having marital problems and Jordana’s mum suffering a brain tumour (higher on the scale of parental issues, Oliver assures himself). The once distant, mysterious Jordana pulls him closer. Shit just got real, and Oliver can’t hack it. He diverts his efforts in to his parents’ marriage and saving his mum from the open arms of mullet coiffure-d psychic and pseudo motivational speaker Graham, potentially sacrificing his own love with Jordana.
Submarine is a clever, funny, beautiful film that doesn’t deny the complexities of our formative relationships, but also doesn’t deny us our hope for love (and sex). The film is framed through Oliver’s narration and cleverly punctuated with funny title cards (and dramatic musical overtures).
Our charming protagonists aren’t teens with loose impulses and no concept of brevity. When Oliver proposes sex (verbally), he writes on Jordana’s hands some astute justifications; “Bound to be disappointing so why wait?” But they’re still teenagers, and still fine tuning their emotional intelligence and intuition. They’re confused, insensitive, maturing.
As one of Turner’s tracks says, they’re stuck on the puzzle, fumbling to figure out how all the pieces fit together. Figuring out that they will is half the battle.