A great coming-of-age film understands that heartbreak feels so much bigger when you’re in high school. It feels all-encompassing. It feels devastating. It feels terminal. Richard Ayoade’s brilliant Submarine understands that and, more importantly, he conveys it in a way that transports its audience back to our first break-up and the attendant feelings of desperation and futility. But to get there, you have to believe there’s love, and in the first act of Submarine, Ayoade brings so much wit, so many clever turns of phrases, and so much adoration for his characters that you can’t help but to fall hard for them. He grows your heart three sizes, but then he punctures it with a flame-throwing pitchfork.
Craig Roberts stars as Oliver Taylor, a British Max Fischer by way of Bud Cort in Harold and Maude. He’s an introspective type, prone to long considerations about how he’d be remembered if he were to suddenly die. He’s on the lower rung of the social ladder at his school, bullied and teased and in search of an identity. After taunting an overweight girl in his class and pushing her into a puddle, but then showing her some consideration, he wins the affection of his co-conspirator, Jordana (Jasmine Paige), an unspectactular girl with eczema that Oliver nevertheless fancies. Their courtship is fast and full of so much whimsy that you’ll either levitate or hurl, depending on your level of cynicism.
Submarine grows darker, however, in the second act, as the relationship of Oliver’s parents comes into focus. His Dad (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist, suffers from depression, while his mother (the always stellar but somewhat miscast Sally Hawkins) reconnects with a high-school boyfriend turned new-age mystic ninja, replete with strobe-lit rape van (Paddy Considine kills in the role). His parents’ marriage is suffering and Oliver, ever fearful of change, begins his own campaign to focus his mother’s wondering eye, while also dealing with his relationship with Jordana, whose own mother has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
A plot description is an atrocious way to sell this movie — stripped of its context, daydream sequences, a brain tumor, depression, and a mystic ninja are the kinds of things that might make one’s stomach turn. But Ayoade — who also plays Moss in “The IT Crowd” — brings an irresistibly playful darkness to the movie. Wes Anderson and Hal Ashby comparisons are both accurate and not — Submarine is sloppier and less suffocating. more charming and less sure of itself than Anderson’s work, and the humor is not as macabre as Ashby’s. But the sensibility is in the same section of the bleachers. It pulls from a lot of sources, but the blend results in something both immensely heartfelt and heartbreaking, a brand of whimsiquirkilicious that is equal parts buoyant and achy.
This review was originally published during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The film arrives in limited theaters today.
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