Writer and director Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd The Mighty Boosh) claims copious influences for his feature debut and the film can’t help but remind us of other indie-flavored coming-of-age flicks like Rushmore and Harold and Maude but Submarine is a decidedly and endearingly unique film. In a season where most of the films we flock to see merit descriptors like “super ” “action-packed” and various forms of the word “huge ” Ayoade’s little dark comedy creeps along below the water line ready to pop up and deliver a delightful surprise for summer movie goers.
Adapted from the novel by Joe Dunthorne Submarine tells the story of Oliver (Craig Roberts) a rather strange highly-intelligent 15 year-old boy who’s determined to lose his virginity by his next birthday rescue his parents’ ailing marriage and to see it all retold in an epic New Wave-y cinematic tribute. This idea that his life will be retold on film flows throughout the film contrasting Oliver’s grandiose retelling of his life against its stark realities. Ayoade allows us to see how unreliably Oliver tells his own story but as the plot thickens we tend to get almost as lost in Oliver’s fantasies as he is.
Oliver’s virginity-ending quest leads him to his girlfriend an eczema-riddled pyromaniac named Joanna (Yasmin Paige). He’s picked her out as being most likely to acquiesce to his proposal thanks to various calculated social factors and thus their adolescent romance begins. While Oliver is exploring his relationship with Joanna – greatly consisting of her burning the hair off his legs with matches while he reimagines their romance as captured idyllically on super 8 film – Mr. and Mrs. Tate’s (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) relationship is slowly crumbling. Jill Tate’s old flame Graham a new age life coach with a useless theory about colors (Paddy Considine) moves in across the way sending Jill into a bout of reminiscence and a longing for her youth that stands to threaten her marriage. Oliver being the precocious young man he is is determined to barrel in headfirst to fix his parents’ ailing marriage which he’s been monitoring for months using the dimmer switch setting in their bedroom. (And it’s been on the sex-less setting for quite a while.)
Of course the most obvious reason this film works is Ayoade’s tight script and meticulous direction but the lynchpin is certainly the fantastic cast. Roberts and Paige though both very young fill the screen like two adults trapped in adolescent bodies. Tayor is fantastic as always but Hawkins ably treads the wafer-thin line between goofy hilarity and the complete and total sincerity of a housewife in crisis. Considine’s Graham gets a little cartoonish at times but those moments are reigned in with a little help from Hawkins.
Ayoade lends a sort of film-brat aesthetic to Submarine playing with French New Wave elements and giving nods to films like Love in the Afternoon. Of course the fact that Oliver is so inclined to remember his life in film scenes helps to unleash the techniques in Ayoade’s repertoire. In other settings this combination may have felt a little jumbled but the story almost begs for it here. Bolstering Ayoade’s plethora of techniques is the style he chose for the film. It’s a bit retro but not overly so. Ayoade situates Oliver’s gloomy seaside town in a timeless space that feels simultaneously old fashioned and completely fresh.
Finally tying all the elements together with a big bow is the soundtrack comprised of original songs by Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys. While he had some of the tunes composed before Ayoade brought him in to work on the film the tracks perfectly complement Submarine’s style providing the cinematic drama that Oliver would approve of without undermining the understated reality that he’s so determined not to see.
It certainly doesn’t feel like Submarine is Ayoade’s debut. He’s done his fair share of writing and directing getting behind the scenes on a few British television shows and directing music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs but this film feels like it comes from someone who’s been in the feature film business for years. It’s seemingly without glaring rookie mistakes or hiccups. And while the retro indie dark comedy vein often lends itself to overdrawn quirk Submarine doesn’t.
Film-brat elements aside at its heart Submarine is a fiercely genuine slightly complicated and completely lovable film.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Loosely based on a documentary about a family who encountered strange goings-on in their new home this Hollywood-ized version finds the Campbell clan moving into a Victorian-style house in upstate Connecticut only to find it was once a funeral parlor dating back to the 1920s where spiritual entities crossed over thanks to the then-owner's clairvoyant son Jonah. You might think they would have gotten the idea that all was not so charming and quaint by the fact there's also a creepy cemetery next door but with the father usually off on a drunken spree and Mom urgently needing a place to take care of her gravely ill cancer-stricken teenage son (not to mention two daughters) there wasn't much time to house-hunt. Now the past is starting to catch up with the present and the Campbell's face terrifying ghostly visitors at just about every turn.
WHO'S IN IT?
At the center of this nightmare Virginia Madsen (Sideways) is well-cast as the rock-solid mom who has to contend with a weak hubby sickly son and a new house seemingly populated by the dead! Madsen once dealt with Candyman so this haunted mansion should be a snap. As Matt her son with a rare usually fatal cancer Kyle Gallner redefines intensity spending the bulk of the movie fighting demons of every kind — including his own. Amanda Crew plays it by the numbers as daughter Wendy the type of movie character that likes exploring dark deserted rooms late at night. Martin Donovan is given the thankless role of the alcoholic father while Elias Koteas is laughable as a Reverend who tries to battle the home's devilish spirits and seems to be channeling Father Merrin from The Exorcist.
Besides Madsen? Not much. But at least this is one horror film based in some semblance of reality with the cancer plotline adding a layer of credibility not found in today's usual brand of torture porn.
In taking its inspiration from countless psychological '60s classics like The Haunting and The Innocents to the more vivid terrors of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist it only serves to point up this incarnation's inadequacies. There are a few scares but they are all produced by predictably quick editing and heightened music cues designed to give the audience a momentary rush and not much else.
The unintentionally funny sequence when the family first discovers their new dream house may not have been such a good deal after all. It's even more terrifying than a sub-prime mortgage!
Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.