“Submarine” is an eccentric coming-of-age comedy from Britain, that rare teen comedy where the kids aren’t gorgeous, the hero isn’t heroic and the object of desire has a lot of reasons why she isn’t necessarily desirable.
And no, it has little or nothing to do with submarines.
Actor (“The IT Crowd”) turned writer-director Richard Ayoade’s film of Joe Dunthorne’s novel leans heavily — a bit too heavily — on “quirky” as we explore the self-important autobiography of young wordsmith Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a teenager who informs we “Americans,” in an opening credit, that “Submarine; is an important film” which we should treat “with respect.”
Oliver is a clever-enough lad, which means he’s bullied. But he’s not among the ranks of the unpopular at his school in Wales. It’s just that “In many ways, I prefer my own company.” Oliver’s best days have him slinking into school or some other social situation unnoticed — “like a torpedo.”
He lives a not particularly interesting real life or fantasy life. He monitor’s his parents’ sex habits by checking the dimmer switch setting on their bedroom and listening in on their conversations and phone calls.
And then he sets his sights on Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a beguiling, aloof classmate who smokes and seems to enjoy watching others be bullied. “She’s moderately unpopular,” Oliver reasons. That means he has a shot.
Much of the movie is taken up with Oliver’s exceedingly awkward courtship of the girl who is too cool to be courted.
The rest is centered on Oliver’s increasing alarm at the state of his parents’ marriage. Dad (Noah Taylor of “Shine”) is an odd-looking oddball, a marine biologist who is given to bouts of depression and is a bore on a good day. Mom (Sally Hawkins) isn’t happy with the oddball husband and can’t figure out the oddball son, despite reading up on parenting. Her shock at him telling her he has a girlfriend has layers of reaction. She’s so concerned she’ll scar him for life or snuff out his nascent heterosexuality she sputters.
And complicating matters is the hipster-doofus psychic (Paddy Considine) who has moved in next door and has “history” with mom.
The adult story is just as interesting as the teen one, but it isn’t weighted or played as such. Mom seems too clever to fall for a con artist clown like Graham, and dad seems too morose to keep home and hearth together.
Young Roberts is used to great effect as sort of the long lost child of Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson. His unusual looks explain Oliver’s lack of confidence and over-compensating vocabulary. But that’s part of his charm, for us and for Jordana.
Oliver’s efforts to get what he wants out of Jordana run up against his fear at what he’ll lose at home. His reactions to both range from dully predictable to sympathetically original. One feels there are submarine metaphors (dad’s research into sturgeon) that must have been better handled in the book.
Two things really work — Oliver and Jordana’s love-contempt relationship, and Oliver’s colorful way of describing it. That first kiss? “Her mouth tasted of milk, Polo Mints and Dunhill cigarettes.”
“Submarine” captures the cruelty of school life and the assorted “types” who inhabit schools there and here. But it’s more twee than clever, more affectionate than romantic and more promising than satisfying.
MPAA Rating: R, for language and some sexual content.
Cast : Craig Roberts, Sally Hawkins, Yasime Paige, Paddy Considine, Noah Taylor
Credits: Written and directed by Richard Ayoad, based on the Joe Dunthorne novel. Produced by Mary Burke, Mark herbert, Andy Stebbing. A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 1:37