Coming of age in Wales

Main Cast: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine

Director: Richard Ayoade

Coming of age movies need a quirky protagonist.  Who wants to watch an average kid go through adolescence?  We’ve all been there; we don’t want to spend our leisure time reliving that particular hell.  So when crafting the coming of age movie it’s important that the filmmakers make their hero both relatable (read: sort of normal) and eccentric – that way we can watch from a distance and enjoy without PTSD.  The Ben Stiller produced Submarine is one coming of age story that succeeds nicely in maintaining that balance.

Our hero is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts).  Oliver is a Welsh schoolboy, complete with adorable accent, voice-over narration of his feelings and intentions, general insecurity combined with delusions of grandeur and some problems at home that are combining to make his life…interesting.

Oliver has an initially rather clinical crush on Jordana (Yasmin Paige) with whom a relationship would improve his social status.  He has a friend who’s a fairly ruthless bully, an unattractive quality with which he goes along – because it serves his social status.  His parents are odd and distant from each other, which worries him as he stalks their movements trying to assure that their marriage remains intact.  Throughout it all he’s mostly a kid trying to find his way through the minefield of adolescence.

What I like about Submarine is its real attempt not to make Oliver either a true hero or a true anti-hero.  He’s got some great qualities as a human being, but most of them are currently being overshadowed by hormones, social pressure and anxiety.  He says and does stupid and mean things as well as sweet and naïve things and we can’t help but see the decent adult trying to emerge.

Making his feature film debut, writer/director Richard Ayoade adapts his music video background and gives Submarine intertitles, abrupt stylistic changes and hand held camera work that add both visual interest and a very youthful feel to the production.  I found it all to be a bit much and could have used less of the visual gimmickry by about half, but the intention is a good one, giving the film an extra layer of silly eccentricity that generally helps us understand Oliver.

The young actors playing Oliver and Jordana are solid and likable, quirky and relatable, exactly what they need to be for a film like Submarine to capture the adult heart.  They’re neither too childish nor to adult, striking just the right tone of on-the-brink maturity.  They are joined by veteran actors Sally Hawkins (who you’ll recognize from An Education) and Noah Taylor (who you’ll recognize as Mr. Bucket from Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Oliver’s parents.  Both characters are beautifully written and played – they feel both real and like caricatures at the same time.  It’s a careful balance and both actors walk the edge masterfully.  Paddy Considine (who I know best from In America) appears as the new next door neighbor and former love of Oliver’s mother.  His character is ridiculous and corny and pathetic and perfectly played.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Submarine.  There are plenty of very, very funny moments mixed in with the genre-requisite hand wringing.  The quirky doesn’t overwhelm the relatable or vice versa making the movie delightfully watchable.  Ayoade makes an impressive feature debut, needing only to tone down a few of his music video camera tricks.  As both writer and director he really brings the story and wonderfully quirky characters from Joe Dunthorne’s novel to life.

Kudos also to Ben Stiller for lending not only his name and money to the production but also some of his persona.  You can feel him in the characters of Oliver’s father, the next door neighbor and even, if you watch carefully, catch him in a tiny, tiny cameo as a TV character.  Submarine is a very good little indie sleeper – 4 stars out of 5.

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