The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by James MacDowell.

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Adolescence is very good subject matter for films interested in creating a dual tone of sympathy for, and detachment from, protagonists. Because teenage characters are posied on a precipice of experience, while still green enough to possess some innocence, it sometimes seems that even the squarest treatment of them can’t help but become somewhat qualified. “We lived happily ever after,” the teenage heroine of A Cinderella Story (2004) says of a burgeoning relationship at the end of her movie, going on to add “...well, at least for now - hey: I’m only a freshman!” We can’t help but view adolescents’ trials, romantic or otherwise, through the distancing lens provided by their youthfulness.

Submarine fits fairly snugly into the 'quirky' sensibility pioneered by American indie filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and so on (discussed here). And, despite one or two questionable issues of transition from the U.S to the U.K (Paddy Considine’s slimy self-help public speaker, a figure not unlike those found in Little Miss Sunshine [2007] or Magnolia [1998], feels somewhat out-of-place in Wales), the approach has managed to cross the pond more or less successfully. To my mind, one of the key features of quirky filmmaking is its tension between ironic detachment and sincere engagement. While part of the reason for the sensibility’s frequent focus on adolescents doubtless stems from a pursuit of ‘hip’ youth markets, then, I think it can also be explained by this intersection of teen subject matter with the quirky’s preferred tone. I want to think here a little about how these two things play off each other in Ayoade’s film.

Firstly, Oliver Tate is a precocious protagonist who, in classic teenage fashion, wants to distinguish himself from the crowd. In one of his first voiceovers, he tells us that he has tried to adopt many idiosyncrasies in order to make himself unique: smoking a pipe, flipping a coin, listening to French crooners, a “hat phase”, and so on. These details make for a both amusing and economical introduction to the kind of adolescent we are dealing with: not quite so gung-ho in his search for individuality as Rushmore’s (1998) Max Fischer (these are endearingly small-scale endeavours compared with Max’s plays and multitudinous school societies), but still definitely someone straining to be ‘different’. The audience is invited to be both charmed and somewhat judgmentally amused by these obviously rather juvenile strategies, but Oliver too is himself aware of his precociousness: “I suppose it’s something of an affection...” he has said before launching into his list. We can thus to an extent join Oliver in his detached view of himself, whilst also recognising that it is perhaps not quite yet detached enough: these self-conscious ploys together constitute a little more than something of an affectation.

Part of Oliver’s own youthful sense of identity is built precisely around striking a balance between simultaneous emotional involvement and distance from his own feelings. He speaks of imagining that his life is a film about a prominent thinker, and at another point confesses that “I wish life were more like American soap operas” - a wish that bespeaks both a desire for untrammeled investment in life’s melodramatic traumas and a contrary pull towards seeing them as fictional. And indeed, while Oliver may long for heroism and high drama, he cannot commit to real life’s problems when they occur. Thus, he tries to smooth over the cracks in his parents’ relationship (because, he says, “I don’t want anything to change”), and does his best to stay at arm’s length from the familial pain being experienced by the supposed love of his life, Jordana. The real question is to what extent the film he is in feels a similar way.

There are certainly a fair share of what we might call distancing techniques used in the movie. The narrative is split into sections - Prologue, Epilogue, etc. - a measure which can’t help but periodically remind us that we are watching a film, and a rather self-conscious one at that. Similarly, a very close relationship is established between Oliver’s consciousness and the film’s own construction at the moment when his voiceover informs us that what he would really like right now is crane shot, but he’ll settle for a zoom - prompting Ayoade’s camera to, indeed, zoom outwards. Likewise, there’s a characteristically quirky deadpan cut from Oliver throwing himself valiantly into a confrontation with a bully to the disappointing aftermath - a disheveled and roundly defeated Oliver. Looked at in one way, such devices lean towards the ‘detached’ end of the spectrum - measures designed to put an ironic spin upon a teenage life that we might already feel primed to view with the disengagement that comes from looking at childhood through adult eyes.

Yet the film also exploits very successfully the other important, and contrary, pull offered by adolescent subject matter: the intensity of feeling that this period of one’s life provides. “I know I won’t care about this when I’m thirty eight,” Oliver says at one point - and the film does know this to be true. But it also knows how much we do care about our clichéd teenage joys and defeats at the time they’re happening. Thus, at the same time as its stylistic palette is occasionally being used to take us out of the action, other elements are working to draw us back in. So we have the beautiful interludes of Oliver and Jordana playing with sparklers and fireworks, the 8mm home-movie-like bursts of energy, the unusually long passages accompanied by Alex Turner’s songs - portions that try unapologetically to make us feel the seductive delirium of first love, or lust, that the characters are going through, which no amount of irony can put asunder.

In fact, because of the context provided by these touchingly heartfelt paeans to young love, the slightly distancing pomposity of, say, ‘Prologues’ and ‘Epilogues’ can start to feel merely one more strategy designed to make us share Oliver’s experience: these are things that would likely be included in the film of his own life that he seems to be constantly constructing in his head. Overly heavy-handed blasts of chords on the score and fade-to-reds also serve this function. We notice that such things are self-conscious, certainly, but can also take them as conveying what it feels like to think and feel like the simultaneously self-conscious and emotionally raw teenage protagonist that is Oliver Tate.

Yet the film does definitely want to have it both ways - and perhaps occasionally overplays itself in this regard. So, although filled with moments that ask us to sympathise with Oliver, the movie also sometimes goes further than many other quirky films in asking us to pass harsh judgment on him. The moment at which we feel perhaps at our least sympathetic towards our protagonist comes when he fails to keep his date to support Jordana at the hospital, all the while convinced that he is being “the best boyfriend in the world”; at this point our view of Oliver is at a far remove from whatever degree of self-knowledge he may have about himself. Again, after Jordana reveals her sensitive side (having initially attracted Oliver with her cynicism), Oliver laments that “she’ll get gooey in the middle”, displaying a wholly unattractive inability to relate to suffering that is not his own. The film does its level best to redeem him by the end, but it faces a tough task in getting us to like him once more. But then, this is Submarine’s chosen approach to its tone, and perhaps it simply wants to be honest about the kinds selfishness that adolescent ‘individualism’ can promote - maybe something which many other teen films are prone to forgive a little too easily.

The kind of balance that the movie aims for can be nicely encapsulated by the moment when Oliver’s father, upon hearing that Oliver has a girlfriend, makes him a mix tape. As a father-son scene it's already both funny and touching - amusingly awkward and no less moving for its gaucheness (“It’s music I listened to during my early formative relationships; plus some things that I just thought you might ‘dig...’”). His father goes on to say that “Music can make things a little more real sometimes,” before somewhat souring the moment by telling Oliver that he has also put some break-up songs on there, “just in case”. A gesture both humorous (its inappropriateness), honest (15-year-old kids will break up), self-conscious (needing outside stimuli to create the “real”) and insightful (personal soundtracks are a key part of adolescence, the father knows), this scene walks nicely a line that the film in general is aiming for. The real tonal kicker, though, comes later: Oliver does need those break-up songs, and he uses them.

This Alternate Take was published on April 02, 2011.