With all the negative press and deep soul searching occasioned by the release of “The Green Lantern,” it seems like this might be an opportune moment to suggest that a tiny film, made on a tiny budget, set in a tiny land, might be worth your attention: “Submarine.”
“Submarine” was written and directed by British funnyman Richard Ayoade, famous, primarily, for his portrayal of ur-nerd Moss on the IT-support-based sit-com, “The IT Crowd.” Thanks to the relatively deep infiltration of technology and thus tech snafus and thus tech support into our lives, the lives of “the others” versus the “homo technologicus” has made for several hilarious seasons of “IT Crowd” (available via Netflix). One of the most essential parts of the formula that makes this show successful is Moss’ relative sweetness amidst his tech monomania.
Would you trust this man to fix your computer? OK. How about touch your heart?
We, even those who resemble Moss in profession, bearing, or attitude, can see ourselves and laugh without feeling too bruised by the show. Incidentally, I suspect this good-hearted, but slightly beleaguered streak also evident in Chris O’Dowd’s portrayal of Moss’ colleague “Roy” is what translated so well to O’Dowd’s portrayal of the cop love-interest of Kristin Wiig in this summer’s “Bridesmaids.” But if there is a time where sweetness, monomania, innocence, and the sense that life might be something that you can only fake that you can handle needs a gentle comedic directorial hand, it is in the presentation of ones latter teenage years where the ideal and the imagined, the hoped for and the narrowly missed, the spiritual and physical are a hazy umbra of what adults might steer those bodies a few short years later.
Thankfully writer / director Ayode takes us lovingly through the story of Welsh protagonist Oliver Tate’s coming of age climax as he navigates his love for a tough girl and witnesses his parents’ calmly imploding marriage under the influence of a be-mulleted mystic. I felt that the movie was a cross between “Rushmore” and “Harold and Maude.” Craig Roberts’ portrayal of Oliver is charming. He seems to take cues from smooth French songmen of yesteryear like Jacques Bril and Serge Gainsbourg and unlike, say, Wes Anderson movies where these references are over-precious and disingenuous, Ayoade and Taylor keep these quirks as part of the coherent character of Oliver.
I think that’s what this movie does best: characterization. It’s a small movie, with a small budget, but the characters are tight. No character does anything that is inconsistent with the motivations and emotions expressed elsewhere throughout the film. Oliver’s dad (LLoyd) is a quiet, rational, marine biologist struggling with depression. He cannot and does not express anger explosively simply because he can’t. Oliver’s mum (Jill), played by the normally-joyous Sally Hawkins is neglected and feels a loss from the carefree woman she was yesteryear. Unlike, say, a Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle where you know that the pivotal scene will inexorably come where her monologue is effectively the writer/director’s point of view shoved into a scene shoved into the character’s mouth, Ayoade’s opinions or perceptions of the character are missing and this leaves the characters to be the characters that tell this charming story.
Perhaps the key to making this work is something Lauren mentioned: the characters are given space to say nothing. The audience is trusted to read the emotions on the screen. The actors are required to present the emotions the audience needs to see. Where Hollywood whites bad acting out with hokey dialog or soliloquies or voice-overs (see above), Ayoade has the confidence to do what all directors know they should do: show it, don’t say it. In a small, intimate movie, putting nothing else in is the sign of a supremely cool, confident director.
Were Ayoade not such a wonderful comedian, great writer, or capable director, one could easily see him as a wonderful cinematographer. Much of the writing of the movie hinges on Oliver’s conception of his own life as a “bio-pic.” This conceit gives him lines where he imagines running to his girlfriend on the beach only to have the girl turn around at the last minute and not be his girlfriend (a la Truffaut’s 4000 Blows) that Ayoade captures with French New Wave fidelity. Or Oliver imagines that at this scene the camera should fade out dramatically, which then happens or that this day should exist in the Super 8 reel of memories in his mind (cut to Super-8 like footage). While this, again, might border on gimmicky, thanks to Oliver’s complete presentation of the affects (pipe smoking, Nietzsche, and French New Wave) he has sampled / is sampling in the search of his identity, this conceit makes total sense and is organic unto the picture.
Lastly, this movie actually does something that few movies have ever done: it talks very openly and honestly about depression and being depressed. In a moment where both Oliver and his dad appear likely to fall off the emotional normative landscape, in calm, rational, kitchen-table voices Oliver asks about his father’s (and thus possibly his own) experience of depression and how his father (and perhaps he himself) can get through it. There’s a lovely and tender moment here where we see that while no man imagines his Super-8 memory reel showing “they day you talk to your son about a familial disposition to depression” after “teaching to ride bike” or “wonderful day at the beach,” but Lloyd does it. It is a truly memorable scene in the relief that both Lloyd and Oliver show at having been honest with someone else about this factor of life.
But while there is much seriousness, and much character exploration, the movie is very humorous and the love affair between Oliver and Yasmin Page’s “Jordana” is luminous, joyous, and reminds you of the wonder of teenage romance.
So, if your market is sharing this movie, seek it out and help rich films like this continue to be made.