The feature debut of British comedian Richard Ayoade (best known for his roles in The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – which he also directed – and The IT Crowd), the darkly funny coming-of-age drama Submarine (2010) was arguably the surprise package of last year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Adapted from the 2008 Joe Dunthorne novel of the same name, Submarine follows the daily trials and tribulations of Oliver Tate (superb newcomer Craig Roberts), a hyper-intelligent yet socially stunted 15-year-old teenager growing up in Swansea, South Wales. Like any adolescent, Oliver’s mind is mostly filled with amorous thoughts of desire – in this case, for local bad girl Jordana (Yasmin Paige) – and worries over his social status.
However, in addition to these concerns his home life quickly becomes more unstable with the arrival of new neighbour Graham Purivis (Paddy Considine), a self proclaimed, kung fu obsessed mystic who also happens to be the old flame of his straight-laced mother Jill (Sally Hawkins).
Taking the side of his depressive, marine biologist father Lloyd (Kiwi actor Noah Taylor), Oliver frantically tries to pull together the frayed threads of his parent’s relationship, whilst at the same time courting the enigmatic, often unpredictable Jordana. Through a range of techniques, Ayoade somehow manages to keep all the plates spinning, and in Oliver Tate has created one of contemporary British Cinema’s most genuine, emotionally complex underdogs.
Taking its cues from past British classics such as Billy Liar (1963), the film’s narrative weaves in and out of the protagonist’s own imagination and subconscious, at times leaving the audience to wonder how much of Oliver’s poetic narration we can really take as the definitive record of events. Intertextuallity is also rife, with a number of pleasing ‘beyond the fourth wall’ moments as Oliver addresses his captive audience.
Submarine’s cast is universally excellent, with the complex central relationship between Roberts, Hawkins and Taylor providing the majority of the film’s humour and pathos. Considine is remarkable (as audiences have come to expect) as 80s throwback Graham, channelling both Derek Acorah and Chuck Norris in one fell swoop, and the film’s young supporting cast of girlfriends, bullies and geeks far surpass the common representation of teenagers that Channel 4’s The Inbetweeners and Skins have given us in recent years.
Everything, from the film’s serial structure to it’s central preoccupation with the sometimes baffling complexities of human emotion and interaction (Oliver is himself obsessed with the concept of ultrasound, and its method of penetrating obstructive barriers covertly, as he attempts to do with his own parent’s floundering marriage), set Submarine apart as one of the great British films of the year.
A mention should also go to the film’s superb original soundtrack courtesy of Arctic Monkey’s frontman Alex Turner, a refreshing change from the normal pop-heavy soundtracks normally associated with nostalgic coming-of-age pieces.
Ayoade has once again shown himself to be as fine behind the camera as he is in front (excluding perhaps the deeply unfunny The IT Crowd and the misjudged Marenghi spin-off Man to Man with Dean Learner), and with his feature debut has produced a dark, sensitive and at times hilarious exploration of small town teenage existence.