I hate to say this – the word isn't in my vocabulary, normally – but Richard Ayoade's Submarine is charming. It's charming even though there's nothing very charming about either its protagonist or its subject, a litany of teenage humiliations and betrayals. Based on Joe Dunthorne's novel, Submarine is the story of a middle-class boy's pained adolescence in Wales. Nothing special distinguishes Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), except a fondness for narrating in anxious voiceover and visualising his mundane life as a film, complete with references to camera angles. At one emotional point, he feels that his story calls for a sweeping crane shot, but admits, "Unless things get better, the biopic of my life will only have the budget for a zoom out" – which, of course, is what the camera gives us.
Fifteen-year-old Oliver suffers from romantic yearnings, routine bullying at school, a gloomy home life and the acute self-consciousness of a precocious sophisticate. "I've tried smoking a pipe," he muses, "flipping coins – listening exclusively to French crooners" – cut to a Serge Gainsbourg LP sleeve – "I've even had a hat phase" – cut to Oliver at the family dinner table, acting as if the blue Stetson on his head weren't really there.
When Oliver falls for classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), she rather brings out the worst in him. Jordana seems to enjoy bullying – "in moderation", he observes – so Oliver tries to impress her by helping to torment another girl. It's a shocking moral lapse, but it does the trick, and Oliver and Jordana embark on a gauche liaison. "I've already turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory," he says, and the film gives us a sweet, scrappy montage that's a textbook illustration of first love remembered – seashores, bicycles and all. Their trysts have an appealing air of big children playing at adulthood, not quite ready to grow up.
And why would they want to grow up? If the playground world is beset with horrors, adult life is appalling – especially in mid-Eighties Wales. Oliver's mother Jill (Sally Hawkins, trussed up in the ungainly skirts and dainty bows of the period) is bored rigid, while father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) is a marine biologist in lugubrious beige. To Oliver's concern, Jill is taking an interest in her ex-beau Graham (Paddy Considine), a strutting dork of a New Age guru. All mullet, leather strides and spacehead rhetoric – "I'm a prism! That's not mad, OK?" – Considine's turn is fun, albeit incongruously sitcom-broad for Submarine's otherwise wry observational delicacy.
Writer-director Ayoade – the IT Crowd comic actor turned pop-video wiz – has a terrific sense of visual and narrative economy, and a way of getting actors to home in on the subtly excruciating touch. Sally Hawkins's Jill is a masterclass in cringing middle-class repression, every brisk smile an agonised wince in disguise. Under a vast beard of premature decrepitude, Noah Taylor makes the depressive Lloyd at once intensely weird and sublimely boring.
Yasmin Paige is terrific as Jordana, gazing with universal contempt from under the warlike helmet of a bob. And Craig Roberts carries the film both visually and in his delivery: wearing a look of perpetual half-terror, advancing with stooped shuffle in his duffel coat, and with his diction just the right side of stilted, always pitched that vital bit too fast. When he's with Paige, there's a wonderful chemistry to their spiky awkwardness: did you ever see more believable, militantly non-cuddly young lovers on screen?
Some of the above is what makes Submarine charming. But what really distinguishes the film is Ayoade's exuberance as a film-maker. He's unashamedly a buff, a New Wave-besotted Francophile who can't resist making any and every in-joke that occurs to him. The result could have been painful, if not for Submarine's grace and perfectionism. Composer Andrew Hewitt contributes a fetchingly dead-on pastiche of Georges Delerue's scores for Godard and Truffaut, and cameraman Erik Alexander Wilson pulls off a series of freeze-frames that capture youthful dizziness with all the breathlessness of the early-Sixties generation. But it's all done irreverently: one scene conflates the beach ending of The 400 Blows with Don't Look Now, while the famous close-up coffee cup in which Godard once espied the cosmos here becomes a bowl of cold custard. There's a touch of teenage Annie Hall too, and some Wes Anderson – and not just because Ayoade borrows his beloved Futura font for the titles.
This could have been merely cute and self-regarding, but in its easy vivacity, Submarine comes across as the most playful, least neurotic of film-buff films. The verve and tenderness of the execution make up for some over-familiarity in the material – Oliver is an oddball, but still essentially Adrian Mole's Welsh cousin – and lifts Submarine into a pleasurable league of its own. It is only sometimes outright funny, but Submarine always maintains a wry, melancholic wit. It's a very winning debut by Ayoade, who impresses mightily – not just because he's channelling the greats.
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