Sharing adolescent angst with style and soul
By a fluke of the release schedule, two adolescent coming-of-age movies open in the Boston area today, but only “Submarine’’ is worth your time. (The other is the toothless fake-indie “The Art of Getting By.’’) The directing debut of British comic actor Richard Ayoade, it owes various debts to various predecessors — a little “Napoleon Dynamite,’’ a lot of “Rushmore,’’ a loving soupcon of French New Wave — but “Submarine’’ has its own specific miseries and darkly funny vibe. It makes quirkiness briefly seem like a good thing again.
The setting is 1980s Wales, but the movie doesn’t hit us over the head with New Wave hits or big hair. The hero’s peg-button coat is the only signifier of time and place; for the most part, a defeatist stink of the late 1970s hangs over the proceedings. Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is the sort of late bloomer who natters away on the soundtrack but can barely open his mouth in real life, and his crush on Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) has paralyzed him further. Jordana is trouble — a small black cloud of subversion who burns Oliver’s leg hair with a match on their first date. He’s in heaven.
Ayoade, working from a 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne, catches one facet of teenage existence that few movies own up to: the spinelessness. Oliver’s perfectly willing to bully a classmate (Lily McCann) if it’ll bring him closer to Jordana, and if he’s decent enough to feel shame, he’s also stupid enough to try to apologize. The victim already knows adolescence is cruel.
For Jordana, cruelty is freeing; it allows her to speak her mind without fear. Everyone else in the movie fumbles sweetly for words or just shuts up and takes it. Oliver’s parents are a perfectly passive pair, united in their politeness and choking on unhappiness. Dad (Noah Taylor) is slipping into a discreet depression, and Mum (Sally Hawkins) is drawn to an old boyfriend (Paddy Considine), a spike-haired charlatan who sells himself as a New Age mystic. Why would a nice, well-behaved woman ever climb into this man’s van?
Women are one of the movie’s mysteries; adulthood is the other. How do you get there, Oliver obsessively wonders, and why are all the grown-ups so exhausted? Do you have to have sex first? Is love necessary, or even advisable? As his parents’ marriage founders, the hero has to choose between saving his childhood and building his future. He takes the same way out most of us do: avoidance and blind panic. At least it brings him closer to his dad.
If this is uncomfortable stuff, though, it’s served with unexpectedly effervescent style, and while we’ve been to this cinematic neighborhood many times before, we haven’t been to this particular house. Ayoade over-directs like the first-timer he is, but, oddly enough, the approach works. “Submarine’’ careens along at a hormonal pace, with Oliver’s voice-overs dispensing winsome self-justifications (“I found a book on teenage paranoid delusions during a routine search of my parents’ bedroom’’) while melodramatic movie music surges on the soundtrack and the hero moves from an obsession with his own pain to an understanding of everyone else’s.
It’s exactly like being inside a smart, revved-up kid’s head during that year where everything seems bigger, louder, sadder, and brighter than life.