Submarine doesn’t seem like it could work in the US. The Welsh film brandishes the sort of nuance that would make Adventureland shudder and all of the teenage characters look both age appropriate and of normal attractiveness. Still the eccentric Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) has all the same jumbled hormones and insecurities that define teenagers worldwide. What sets this film apart from every other teenage dramedy churned out every year, however, is its clear articulation of Oliver’s earnest point of view that brings the audience on board his train of thought. Oliver navigates a burgeoning relationship with a morose classmate and parental problems not well on his part, but with a lot of heart, and that’s what matters.
Oliver’s a loner who has spent much of his 15 years reading the dictionary and listening to French crooners on vinyl in order to find out who and what makes him tick. Oliver has his own code of ethics, but as he puts it, “I must not let principles stand in the way of progress.” His ability to articulate exactly the sentiment, or more often many conflicting and contradictory sentiments, enables him to deliver lines that cut into his soul where few teenage film characters dare to venture. Sacrificing his sense of decency allows him to latch onto the object of his affections, Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), by helping her bully a fellow classmate. Jordana operates as idealistic Oliver’s mysterious and cynical counterpoint and forces him to explore the extent of who he wants to be.
English star, Richard Ayoade, most notably of IT Crowd fame, adapted Joe Dunthorne’s novel Submarine and many hallmarks of the novel remain, for better or for worse. The film works well on its own because just like the source material, what we see is heavily skewed towards the way Oliver sees the world. Voice overs and frequent explorations of Oliver’s fantasies allow the story to follow Oliver’s train of thought. Often times Oliver’s biased perspective ignores other characters except in the way they factor into his story, but luckily Oliver’s story is plenty interesting.
Few lines of dialogue burst out as outrageously clever, but Ayoade lets Oliver’s role as an unreliable narrator shine through. Oliver can only focus on one thing sincerely at a time, which leads to a segmentation of the film into parts one, two, three, etc. Oliver’s parents, played to a tee by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins, are fuddy duddies with a penchant for taupe. Consequently the storyline of his mother rekindling a relationship with a self-help guru Graham, feels less engaging than Jordana’s story. While still well done, the verve doesn’t come back in full force until Oliver’s two relationships come to a head at the same time place.
Stylistically, Submarine doesn’t take too many drastic chances, but the frequent cutaways and multiple montages set to the Alex Turner soundtrack, add a level of artistry to the story. The movie’s tone matches that of the bewitching Welsh countryside that serves as backdrop to much of Oliver’s antics.
Oliver is completely self aware and yet completely aloof and that is his and the film’s charm. Ayoade knows what the kids are into these days, Alex Turner and fantastical cutaways illustrating the teenage mind, and yet also makes sure to dot the i’s and crosses the t’s. Few adaptations manage to capture the essence of the book as well as this one does. Ayoade proves himself competent at relaying a compelling story and sets the stage for future efforts that would succeed with even half the heart of Oliver Tate.