'Submarine' takes place in a world that's at once totally familiar and timeless -- you'll find hand-written notes in place of Facebook wall posts, thank you -- and slightly, delightfully bizarre. Protagonist Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a strange young man who slumps along in his black Paddington Bear–like coat, reading the dictionary on the beach near his house in Wales, monitoring his parents' sex life based on scientific measurements of their bedroom light dimmer, wooing the rebellious firebug Jordana, and spying on his strange neighbor whom he figures for a ninja. He is, in short, Coming of Age.
Based on the book Joe Dunthorne and adapted by director Richard Ayoade, 'Submarine''s whimsy is grounded by its characters' very real concerns. Oliver is truly worried about his parents' marriage; it just so happens that the rival for his mother's affections is a New Age, wannabe guru named Graham (Paddy Considine) with an amazing mullet and a fantastically airbrushed van. Oliver's lady friend Jordana (Yasmin Paige) is stalwartly anti-romantic and enjoys burning Oliver's leg hair off, but she never tumbles over into the world of Manic Pixiedom. While she is the catalyst for Oliver's emotional maturation, she also grows and changes through the movie and is a wholly interesting character in her own right. Oliver's mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) is restless and frustrated with her mournful husband Lloyd (Noah Taylor); it's just that instead of fighting like a normal couple, she makes him watch Graham's ludicrous self-help tapes.
The sincerity and the undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout 'Submarine' keeps it from veering into twee territory. Oliver knows it's a bit pretentious to read the dictionary on the beach by himself, but he does it anyway. And when he protests in a voice-over, "I don't want a mystic ninja for a stepfather!" you can't help but agree. When he comes up with nonsensical plans to save his parents' marriage or to help Jordana deal with a pressing emotional matter, you cringe and laugh at the same time, because it's heartfelt even when he's totally off the mark.
Ayoade's first full-length feature is beautifully shot with great attention to detail. Oliver and Jordana's courtship is illustrated with joyous snapshots and sped-up home movies that recall Ayoade's experience directing music videos; they run through an empty carnival with sparklers, stare at each other through prisms, set off countless fireworks and sit in empty bathtubs in industrial parks. Ayoade's experience and talent as a writer, actor and director informs 'Submarine's every frame and allows it to blossom into something more than just another coming-of-age comedy.
'Submarine' premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and was immediately snapped up by the Weinstein Company. Ben Stiller is an executive producer; his company Red Hour Films co-produced it with Warp Films, the cinema production arm of the ultracool British music label. (Warp also produced 'Bunny and the Bull,' a fanciful flick created by Ayoade's comic cohort, Paul King; the two have worked together on 'The Mighty Boosh' and 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.') As an avid fan of Ayoade and his work on 'The IT Crowd' and other projects, as well as a fervent admirer of Sally Hawkins, I've been chomping at the bit for the past few months to see the TIFF-pleaser for myself. My patience, such as it is, was rewarded -- and then some.