Film review by: Witney Seibold
Richard Ayoade‘s coming-of-age film “Submarine,” deftly captures what it is like to be a teenager is ways that films about teenagers rarely bother to approach. The film’s hero, a mop-topped, Bud-Cort-looking 15-year-old Welsh schoolboy named Lloyd Tate (played with a wide-eyed, gee-whiz desperation by Noah Taylor), is desperate to be cool, and has, as so many teenagers do, affected a rebellious persona for himself predicated on old records, French New-Wave films, and broody sojourns to the gray, gray seaside. Despite being kind of wimpy and nebbishy, he dreams of being Belmondo, and, more importantly, of losing his virginity with the deadpan, Karina-haired, wide-faced bad-girl Jordana (Yasmine Paige), who sits behind him in Biology. Rather than being a usual, raunchy quest to see him through to Home Base, though, “Submarine” mercifully traces instead how self-destructively selfish a teen can be, and how Lloyd’s good intentions and blissfully ignorant bad actions can ultimately serve to create the bulk of the drama in his own life.
Lloyd wears a dark coat and spends most of his free time sitting on the beach, reading Salinger and brooding. Well, it’s not really brooding, as Lloyd seems to have carefully chosen his own persona. His parents (the wonderful Sally Hawkins and the equally wonderful Craig Roberts) are suffering through a stalled marriage, as mom wants more color in her life, and Dad seems content to grayness. His parents’ sex life seems to occupy a great deal of Lloyd’s thoughts. Ayoade is sure to show us the world through Lloyd’s eyes, and the film is brisk and stylized. We may see Lloyd as typical and selfish and even kind of a bully, but Lloyd sees himself as a loner and a rebel. He has a good heart, I suppose, but he’s not really sure what to do with it yet. Case in point: when he pushes a fat classmate into a puddle, an act he committed one afternoon in the hopes of getting Jordana’s attention, his response is not to apologize and shape up, but to write a pseudo-intellectual and condescending essay to his victim, explaining how she would do better not to be a victim so much.
Eventually his blundering advances are noticed by Jordana, who has, even more skillfully than Lloyd, constructed a persona for herself. Indeed, in their courtship, anything resembling typical teen romance is immediately rejected, and the only way they’ve allowed themselves to bond is through carefully constructed acts of arson and drab rebellion. When his parents hear that Lloyd has a girlfriend, they’re quietly elated, and the ordinarily passion-free dad bothers to give Lloyd a mix tape of celebratory love songs. A caveat: side B is all break-up songs for when things inevitably go south.
It’s around this point that one begins to see “Submarine’s” strengths. Despite the tone I’ve struck in this essay so far, it’s actually very positive on Lloyd and Jordana, and is very smart about the way teens talk and how they construct themselves. As teenagers, we’re not necessarily completely formed yet, and we do indeed affect the personalities we feel are best for us. “Submarine” acknowledges that delicate, awkward adolescent balance between what we are and what we want. In many ways, “Submarine” resembles the recent “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” It’s about a dickhead young man, living in a stylized universe constructed entirely of his own perceptions, who must win the heart of someone he feels to be way cooler than he is. Then he has to learn not to be a dickhead in order to keep her.
The film’s second half is devoted to Lloyd’s strange obsession with his mom’s potential affair with the ridiculously coiffed neighbor (Paddy Considine), and poor Jordana seems to be shunted off to the side. As a narrative, this is a mite sloppy, but as a character study, it’s in-keeping with Lloyd’s self-taught life lessons.
It’s cheery, good-looking, smart and surprisingly deft.