Richard Ayoade’s dark comedy Submarine is served up in three parts, in addition to an epilogue, a prologue, and an introductory letter to Americans instructing that it is an important film and should be watched with respect. It also thanks America for not yet having invaded Wales, the setting of Submarine’s story. It’s funny and indicative of the brand of comedy Ayoade has in store for the film’s ninety eight minute run-time. It is also indicative of a sometimes uncomfortable self-awareness the film has about it.
The letter is not from the director or any other filmmaker. It comes from protagonist Oliver Tate. He’s a fifteen year old, slightly awkward boy who is having trouble finding out who he is–attempts at solving this problem include listening to French crooners, flipping coins, and, as he puts it, a brief hat phase. His pseudo-existentialist problems (he is, after all, just like everyone else) seem to be put on hold by the appearance of one Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) with whom he forms a rather frank, romantic relationship (terms of intimacy are verbally agreed upon in full beforehand). In the backdrop of his home life, Oliver’s parents, Jill and Lloyd, are experiencing marital problems, partly due to his father’s (Noah Taylor) seemingly severe depression. And partly due to the reappearance of one of his mother’s (Sally Hawkins) old flames, Graham (Paddy Considine).
What the plot makes up for in originality, the film makes up for in character. After all, none of the events in Submarine are that uncommon. Oliver, played by Craig Roberts, offers continuous voice-over narration and explanation, a risky device, but it works here for the most part. The succinct dialogue that never feels too much like forced irony, maintains its freshness for the majority of the film’s run time. By the end, however, it wears thin on patience.
Graham’s presence, a situation Oliver fears will evolve into an affair, ruining his parent’s relationship that he’s trying to save, wanders into Napoleon Dynamite territory: he’s a new age guru with an incredible mullet (Oliver’s story may or may not take place in the 80s). His scenes effectively truncate the film’s tight pacing. Submarine is at its best in scenes that feature Oliver and both his parents. Hawkins and Taylor are gifted actors whose nuance is much appreciated in a film that focuses so much on style and comedy. One of the film’s best scenes include these two sitting cheerily on Oliver’s bed, letting him know in the interest of full disclosure that the night before, Jill gave Graham a drunken handjob, but if everyone was agreeable, they’d like that moment to be the last time it was discussed.
Submarine loses the feel of its creativity by the its final moments, but it’s quite a pleasant ride up until then.