Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, (500) Days of Summer – while Sundance shepherds many traditional dramas and comedies, the festival has also become a breeding ground for the alternative. Fusing clever writing with stylistic techniques, these off-beat films walk a fine line between traditional narrative and experimental filmmaking. They’ve also been huge hits.
In the wake of success, everyone and their mother wants to whip up the next “quirky” hit. They’re producing them in such mass quantities, filmmakers have it down to a science: start with a coming-of-age drama, throw in a lead character with several ridiculous occupations/hobbies, add in a fun-loving romantic interest and spice it up with a variety of camera angles and tricks.
But obsession with visual flair and unconventional characters can overlook another important part of crafting a film: heart. This year’s Homework is the perfect example: looked good, had a few laughs, but at its core was cold and empty. The IT Crowd and Mighty Boosh actor Richard Ayoade’s first film Submarine is the polar opposite. The film reminds us what we loved about “quirky” movies before the word became a stigma on independent film.
Submarine stars newcomer Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate, a high school control freak who sees his surroundings a chaotic biopic of his life (whose budget is too small for sweeping crane shots, settling for zoom outs). Oliver, a cultural scholar, has his hands in everything, attempting to salvage his parents marriage and his own budding relationship at the same time.
What separates Submarine from every teen romance of the last five years is its commitment to weaving its colorful methods into its story and comedy. It makes sense why Oliver would narrate Submarine like a film noir detective or imagine the funeral procession for his own death. Like the fabricated worlds of Fight Club or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the weird world complements the character.
Festival-goers are quick to compare Submarine to the aforementioned films and the eye-popping work of Wes Anderson, the king of quirk. But unlike Anderson’s films, Ayoade has crafted something both slick and emotional. Think of Submarine as the BBC original to the American remake – they may both deliver laughs, but only one has the cojones to dig deeper.