In a nutshell: Coming-of-age neurosis
Popcorn rating: 3.5/5
Submarine, the directorial debut of TV uber-geek Richard Ayoade, isn’t heavy on plot. Neurotic misfit Oliver Tate falls for his classmate Jordana and worries his parents might split up. That’s pretty much it, but executed with such off-kilter, awkward charm that I really didn’t mind.
Craig Roberts makes Oliver, who could easily have been just another Adrian Mole, believable and endearing even when his behaviour is morally questionable. Yasmin Paige as Jordana strikes the right balance between bravado and vulnerability, hiding behind a scowl and a power-bob. There are great supporting roles from Sally Hawkins as Oliver’s brittle mother and Noah Taylor as Lloyd, his depressive Open University lecturer father. Oliver seems far more like Lloyd than he realises, right down to a burgeoning tendency towards depression, and some of their scenes together are among the most touching in the film.
As a comedy, Submarine is low-key – the best lines are pin-sharp passing observations, rather than jokes. Oliver’s sole remark about his mother’s job – that she works in the sort of office where the person who’s having the birthday is the one who provides the cake – tells us everything we need to know about it; his description of his father’s clinical depression is rendered crystal clear by explaining that he ‘just sat there all day drinking hot lemon from the same mug without ever washing it up.’
My problem with Submarine is that it’s nostalgia that doesn’t know what it’s nostalgic for. There’s a reference to going to see Crocodile Dundee, which would place it in 1986. And sometimes it looks like that. But sometimes it looks like the 70s, all dingy and brown. Sometimes it’s closer to the early 90s.
Ayoade says this was deliberate, that he didn’t want to set it in a specific period. Which is fair enough: who remembers their childhood as it really was anyway? If you’re any older than 30, your memories do look suspiciously like old ciné footage, colour-saturated slides or bleached-out Polaroids, and this is what Submarine looks like too: a scrapbook of photos from different decades jumbled with endless arthouse movie homage in-jokes.
It’s obvious what Ayoade was trying to do with the nostalgia – Oliver more or less spells it out in his voiceover at one point. And sometimes it succeeds. But after 90-odd minutes, the visuals began to grate. Overall, Submarine is thoughtful, gently funny, well-acted and pleasingly unsentimental. It really didn’t need to look like someone playing with the filters on a retro photo iPhone app.