Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Submarine begins, as these tales so often do, with a precocious, damaged boy lusting after a moody, damaged girl. You may momentarily confuse this with own your life, but I assure you that is purely an illusion borne out of repeated exposure to the legions of wounded young men who appear to grow on celluloid like some sort of fungus. Was that me or Max Fischer? Or Antoine Doinel? Maybe Leolo Lauzon? It can be so hard to recall where the screen ends and memory begins sometimes. The past is just tawdry details and still photos. Far more preferable to watch your childhood printed to film and projected in the dark, where you can’t see anyone wince at the embarrassing bits and the soundtrack is always better.

Nostalgia is a powerful seducer, and there’s nothing quite as seductive as feeling nostalgia for someone else’s childhood. All the best bits of adolescence are there to be enjoyed, all the worst laughed away—it’s not like they belong to you, after all. How remarkable it is then that Richard Ayoade manages to avoid this trap in Submarine, his able and charming debut. True, he swipes many of his best moves from the French New Wave, right down to the adolescent Anna Karina who sends our hero into a hormonal tizzy (even the typography appears to be borrowed from Godard). The whole film could easily turn into an overly mannered nostalgia trip—for childhood, for old French movies where angry young men hated the world and wanted to get laid, for Wes Anderson before he ditched Owen Wilson as his writing partner—but Ayoade’s dark wit keeps the film lively and surprising. Submarine is often beautiful and sometimes very funny, but no one is likely to wish this were his or her childhood.

For one thing, our precocious, damaged boy is actually something of a dick, as the film takes great pains to point out. Neurotic far beyond his years, 15-year-old Oliver Tate nervously monitors his parents’ marriage for signs of cracks. He even goes so far as to chart their sexual activities, where, it must be said, things look grimly flaccid. While envisioning the demise of his family unit, he throws himself into an adolescent affair with a coy pyromaniac named Jordana, only to abandon the girl as her mother undergoes life-or-death surgery. Even worse, he begins spying on his own mother, convinced she is having an affair with the ninja guru next door (turns out it was just a hand job, thank goodness). He even contemplates poisoning Jordana’s dog, partly to prepare her for the inevitably of death and loss, and partly to open up a chance to comfort her with some sweet, sweet, awkward teenage loving. Clearly, this is a disturbed child.

Does he mature in the end? Has he learned a lesson? I’m not optimistic, but I remain uncertain, which is a credit to Ayoade’s largely non-judgmental tone. He’s less concerned with navigating the rocky seas towards a dubious maturity than he is with blurring the lines between adolescent follies and adult mistakes. The director may grant these characters a kind of happy ending—not like the neighbour’s, I should add—but for a film that seems so soft on first brush there are a surprising number of barbed edges buried here. Chances are these people will go on wounding each other in new and different ways, held together only by the fact that some out there happen to love the things (or people) that hurt them. For all the film’s whimsy, there is a certain dark logic to this conclusion. Adolescence, after all, is a horrible parade of embarrassments and accidental cruelties. I’m not so sure about young love, but young masochism sounds pretty plausible to me.

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