As long as there are teenagers, there will be stories to make them feel unique. And as long as there are voices as original and inspired as Richard Ayoade’s, those who’ve long since outgrown the target aud will still find reason to appreciate such tales of youthful awkwardness, ostracism and anxiety. Reminiscent of “Rushmore,” though not nearly so self-conscious, Wales-set “Submarine” rises above the genre’s tired, cookie-cutter competition, presenting familiar elements, such as preternaturally articulate teens preoccupied with virginity, through fresh eyes. This witty coming-of-ager should do well for the Weinstein Co., which acquired the popular title at Toronto.
As presented in Joe Dunthorpe’s sardonic first-person novel, 15-year-old Oliver Tate’s (Craig Roberts) general obnoxiousness is offset only by his way with words. He’s a clever kid, the sort who reads the dictionary for fun, a bit full of himself (pic’s self-aggrandizing prologue finds Oliver imagining how the town might react to his death) and afflicted by the not-uncommon adolescent delusion that the world is his to control.
Though set in Swansea, Wales, “Submarine” feels universal enough to unfold anywhere, and the accented English is easy enough to understand; if anything, it lends an exotic veneer to the pic’s otherwise prole milieu.
Like most film characters his age, Oliver wants to lose his virginity, a hurdle he finds far easier to clear than his American counterparts. The film is divided into chapters; part one covers Oliver’s courtship of insouciant classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), even if it means violating his own no-bullying principle to get her attention.
No sooner is that feat accomplished than Oliver turns his attention to defending his family from Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine, hilariously unkempt), a smarmy spiritual guru trying to put the make on Oliver’s mom (Sally Hawkins, the amusing, live-action equivalent of a dowdy, “Wallace and Gromit”-style love interest). While Oliver’s life is just getting interesting, his parents are ready to be put out to pasture — especially his marine biologist dad (drolly played by a bearded Noah Taylor), too depressed to stick up for his marriage. With the three thesps making the most of these ridiculous adult caricatures, “Submarine” goes farther than one might expect in shaking up their complacency, prompting Oliver to seek even more outrageous retribution.
Jordana, whose “only real flaw are her spontaneous bouts of eczema,” fades in and out during this portion of the story, her presence sorely missed whenever she’s absent. She and Oliver may not be authentic adolescents, in the sense that they are both too articulate and self-aware for their age, but the film wisely deprives them of typical teen cliches. Oliver alienates those around him with his intellectual affectations, but unlike “Rushmore’s” ever-perky Max Fischer, he carries a droopier, less extroverted screen presence — a sensibility matched by Andrew Hewitt’s moody music and Alex Turner’s songs.
More often than not, such characters prove disagreeable onscreen, and making them relatable is ultimately a matter of tone — even if the very aspect that repels us is the unflattering mirror they hold up to ourselves at that age. That’s where first-time director Ayoade’s self-deprecating sense of humor comes into play, tempering Oliver’s more unbearable qualities with a familiar dose of insecurity.
“Submarine” is the first feature from Ayoade, best known as TV’s “The IT Crowd” computer nerd. The patron saint of the socially awkward, he blends foot-in-mouth tactlessness with endearing naivete to create characters with no sense of how their words and actions affect others. Oliver fancies himself the star of his own biopic, and Ayoade indulges him with a style that is assured but unobtrusive, playfully toying with classic French New Wave conventions both onscreen (lots of bikes and beaches) and off (jump cuts and handheld camerawork) to strike the right mix of youthful romance and rebellion.