Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 16 May 2011
Source Optimum Releasing 35mm print
Categories The 2011 Independent Film Festival Boston
I still get excited about the movies. I still eagerly tell my friends about the movie I loved that I think they might love too, and by the time I sat down to write this review, I had probably already told a half dozen friends about Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, a coming-of-age film that played to a packed house at IFFB following successful screenings at Toronto and Sundance, not to mention a critically acclaimed theatrical run in Britain. Fans of British comedy will know Ayoade from his work on comedy shows like The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh, and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and his sense of humor is evident throughout his narrative feature debut as a director. But Submarine, which Ayoade adapted for the screen from a novel Joe Dunthorne, is sweet and sad in addition to being funny. It’s a story of teenage trouble that has the style and heft to conspicuously reference The 400 Blows without seeming pompous or ridiculous.
One could say that Oliver Tate, the wide-eyed, shaggy haired teenage protagonist played by Craig Roberts, is this film’s Antoine Doinel, or perhaps its Holden Caulfield (Oliver appears to be a fan of both characters). But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he’s this film’s Oliver Tate, a character imbued with enough love and personality by his creators that he’s able to stand on his own, even when he’s name-checking Salinger. He’s not really your average kid. He reads the dictionary and adopts words like “flagitious” and “atavistic” into his speech and takes a girl to see Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc on a date. But he’s also confused and flawed and more likable because of it, and Roberts grounds him in reality, keeping him from coming across as precious as my review might make him sound.
Oliver is focused on a pair of pressing concerns throughout the film: his love for Jordana, a teenage femme fatale in a Louise Brooks bob who has a yen for cruel pranks and “light arson,” and his concern for his parents’ marriage, which is under increasing strain. Both strands of the plot unfold in compelling and not-always-expected ways. It’s particularly refreshing that while the film scores some laughs at the expense of Oliver’s awkward, melancholy parents, it also endears them to us, showing sympathy toward Oliver’s depressed marine biologist father Lloyd and his disappointed mother Jill, who begins to look toward her ex-boyfriend and new neighbor Graham (played by Paddy Considine) for escape.
There are many fine performances here in addition to Roberts’ turn as Oliver, with Yasmin Paige’s Jordana emerging as a far more sympathetic character than she first appears. Noah Taylor and Happy Go Lucky’s Sally Hawkins also do admirable work as Jill and Lloyd. Only Considine, who is a fine actor, turns in a performance that, while funny, is a bit too cartoonish for his surroundings (Tim Robbins’ over-the-top hippie in High Fidelity represents a similar case). Still, this isn’t Graham’s film, and the focus largely – and rightly – remains on Oliver, Jordana, and Oliver’s parents.
Visually, the film is irresistible. Ayoade works with a bright and varied color palette and loads his film with striking images – the oversized fish tank that looms over Oliver’s kitchen, the sparklers and fireworks that become emblematic of his early days with Jordana – and they add up to a most beguiling whole. Buoyed by effective new songs from the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and composer Andrew Hewitt’s original score, Submarine fully earns the buzz that it’s been generating on the festival circuit and beyond. It is an exhilarating and extraordinarily promising debut.
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