Did you know that kids, especially teenagers, use profanity on a fairly regular basis? One wouldn’t know that by watching films aimed at that demographic, considering the limitations of the PG-13 rating (where you can only say the F word once). The most accurate presentations of high school tend to be films that garner an R rating. Films like Rushmore, Election, and Rocket Science portray high school as it is, where people casually let “naughty” words fly, and the nerd doesn’t win at the end, simply because he’s based on the director. Fortunately, life doesn’t include a soccer mom standing over your shoulder telling you that you’re not allowed to smoke cigarettes if you want to talk to anyone under the age of 17.
Richard Ayoade’s Submarine attempts to distinguish itself in different ways than those high school films; In this case, the love interest (Yasmin Paige) isn’t a model hiding behind glasses and a ponytail, and choices are often made out of panic, so someone in a rebound relationship will stick with the new boyfriend as long as possible, even if they don’t really have any feelings for them. The film does let us down with some of the portrayals of the parents, standard John Hughes-ian types who don’t understand their children, and condescend to them when trying to have conversations about real things. One of the adults involved in the story, Graham Purvis (played by Paddy Consodine), is so broadly written, playing a cartoon of a man with an absurd mullet, leather pants and no self-awareness, he’s basically a combination of a ninja and a Scientologist, that it’s a good thing Consodine lets some sadness drift in near the end of the story.
The first two acts of the [R rated] film are dominated by the main character Oliver (who, in opening text written solely for American audiences, thanks us for not invading his home country of Wales*), played by Craig Roberts with an obvious morose and hair nod to Bud Cort’s Harold of Harold and Maude. His relationship with Jordana (Paige) is sweet because of how it isn’t sweet at all. She’s initially using him to get back at an ex, but once she falls for him (“now that we had kissed for non-blackmail purposes”), his insecurities about how he approaches sex emerge, especially with regards to how he handles peer pressure. Refreshingly, it appears that Oliver and Jordana are one of the few couples in a high school movie who have sex too soon in their relationship, but don’t totally regret it later, as if it all has to fit in some sort of relationship utopia. That perfection bubble becomes relevant to us, because Oliver is honest about his life being entirely based in his understanding of American TV clichés.
Sure, nothing all that groundbreaking, but Ayoade, who after his fantastically silly TV work, such as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Time Trumpet, doesn’t throw the humor in our face too often, despite some unfortunately hyperactive filmmaking and some look-at-me scene transitions. The key to a film like Submarine is something that Judd Apatow about working on his TV show Undeclared vs. when he was working on Freaks and Geeks. Since Undeclared was a comedy, he had to worry about being funny consistently; lulls just meant the jokes weren’t working. But Freaks and Geeks was easier because if a joke flopped it didn’t matter because Freaks and Geeks was a mix of comedy and drama, so they could play off the lack of humor as intentional drama. Ayoade, away from his rapid-fire TV work, and with more time to establish and spread out the jokes (much like Chris Morris did with Four Lions), allows normally periphery characters to take shape.
Noah Taylor’s performance as Oliver’s withdrawn and introverted father Lloyd, who is less worried about his wife cheating on him with Graham than Oliver is, becomes far more compelling than what Oliver is dealing with. Frail, with an unflattering combover and depression problems, Taylor gives Lloyd all the requisite self-hatred but without the inevitable explosion, or implosion for that matter. Lloyd is perfectly happy not being noticed at all, a ghost, but a constantly present ghost. And while Roberts has his moments, high school movies are all about specificity, such as when he makes sure that a teacher never ever forces a student to read aloud a note being passed around out, or his measured reactions to Jordana’s firebug habit, he’s still much more of a cipher than Taylor. If anything, he’s closest to a variation on James McAvoy’s lead character in Starter For Ten (which was cut down to a PG-13), also based on a novel set in the 1980s, and also based on tired Hughes-ian tropes. Luckily, Submarine doesn’t include a scene where our hero runs to find his love, rushing for no particular reason**, just as a way to add suspense when there shouldn’t be any. Wait, Submarine does have that scene. Fuck.
* Funny as it is, the letter is ill-advised because it’s written from Oliver’s perspective, and since the film takes place in the 1980s, but it seems aware of our current situation in America, invading 5 countries at once.
** Starter For Ten takes it to a new level, where you just want to scream out, “hey James! You can slow down. She’ll still be in her dorm room in ten minutes, if you decide to walk. If you do miss her, then you’ve got the entire semester to bump into her. You know, on campus. Where you also go to school.”