June 12, 2011

THE BIJOU: “Submarine”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth A Ticket:  A teen movie unlike any other.
Richard Ayoade’s emotionally rich SUBMARINE is shaping up as one of the sadder stories of the indie boxoffice season.   It was greeted rapturously at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2010, and the US distribution rights were acquired by Harvey Weinstein; Ben Stiller signed on to add his imprimatur (much as Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry had done for Precious).  Several months later, it turned up at Sundance, where it got less notice, since it already had a distributor and most of the critics had seen it the last time around.  Now, 5 months after that, it’s opened without causing much of a stir (around $3500 in each of 17 theatres this weekend), so it may not be in multiplexes much longer. 

It’s a small film, and I can’t say it will be horribly diminished by being watched on a good home theatre system, but as always, the movie experience is best appreciated on a big screen.  Based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, the story takes place in Wales.  Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is, as he would be the first to tell you, our protagonist.  Oliver isn’t quite an outcast, but he’s far from being one of the cool kids, and he observes his misadventures with some detachment, like a film fan watching a particularly compelling movie.  (He often imagines himself as the subject of a documentary or a foreign film.)  His parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) are sunk in their own torpidity, and Oliver’s most engaged moments are when he imagines himself with the subject of his crush, Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige).  He finds, much to his own surprise, that Jordana is interested in him too, and his (often horribly mistaken) interactions with her and with his parents provide the substance of the story.
Some have compared Submarine to a John Hughes film, others to Wes Anderson, and the great thing about it is that it’s somewhere in between.  Ayoade’s subject–and I don’t know that any film has captured it better–is the utter self-consciousness and narcissism of teen years, that genuine feeling that nothing in the world could possibly be more important than your own pains and perceptions.  It can make even decent kids like Oliver treat the feelings of others callously.  In conveying this, Ayoade makes use of the formal sophistication you might see in an Anderson film (much fooling around with film stocks, structural ideas and motifs) to leaven and distance a Hughesian wit and heart.  Another not-so-shabby point of comparison is Renoir; like the master, Ayoade is fully aware of the awful things Oliver does, but he can understand and forgive him his failings. 
The movie isn’t without flaws.  A chunk of the story is concerned with strains in the marriage of Oliver’s parents, in particular with Oliver’s fears that his mother may start an affair with an old boyfriend who’s come back to town, now a garish psychic with a homevideo self-improvement course (Paddy Considine).  Although the 3 adult actors are very good, Considine’s character seems to belong in another, broader movie.  And while Jordana has more shading than the love interests in most teen movies, the fact that the tale is told entirely from Oliver’s point of view makes her a less developed figure than he is. 
All of this is outweighed by the film’s special qualities.  Ayoade gets nuanced, rounded performances from Roberts and Paige, and makes gorgeous use of melancholy photography by Erik Wilson (he also shot Considine’s extraordinary directing debut Tyrannosaur) and score by Andrew Hewitt, as well as a carefully chosen song score.  The movie feels all of a piece; there’s nothing casual or unconsidered about any of his choices.
Submarine is the kind of movie that’s extremely tough to market short of Harvey Weinstein standing on the street and pulling people into theatres (hey, he would have done it for King’s Speech), especially in a summer season notable for its high-profile indie releases; it doesn’t help that its long journey on the film festival trail seems to have diminished any momentum it might have had last fall.  It may never be widely seen on the big screen–it’ll be sad, next week, to watch Fox Searchlight’s insipid high school movie The Art of Getting By eclipse it–but those who see Submarine, in the multiplex or at home, won’t forget it.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."