Coming of age films thrive at Sundance, yet while there are many different kinds of films within that genre, there are maybe only a few typically represented at this fest. Most of them seem to involve girls discovering or experimenting “with their burgeoning sexuality.” Others have to do with minorities overcoming adversities and odds. Then, there are the usual outcast boys, such as those found in the great films “Terri” and “Submarine.”
There are apparently only two ways to really describe any coming of age film when talking about films in Park City. People want to primarily know if the film is quirky or realistic. Quirky has plenty of negative connotations, though, so you don’t always want to use that word with a movie you love. As for realistic, that can either mean overly dramatic or cute and relatable, possibly even twee. That’s another word you don’t want to use in certain company.
“Terri” is a particularly difficult coming of age film to describe favorably because it teeters between the two distinctions and frankly comes awfully close to “Napoleon Dynamite” territory. If it featured someone obscure in the supporting role filled by John C. Reilly it might not have much appeal to comedy fans. But even with him there, it was easy to immediately think of “Cyrus” when seeing the promotional photo of Reilly and an obese kid.
This film will not catch on as any kind of cult favorite that could spawn t-shirts and Halloween costumes. The realism that builds and comes through after an initially very odd first act keeps “Terri” at bay. I think the genuineness comes through most in the lead’s relationship to and performance by Olivia Crocicchia, who is terrific during a scene of intoxicated honesty and vulnerability that recalled for me Michael Cuesta’s wonderful yet under-seen coming of age drama “Twelve and Holding.” I think if you’re familiar with and like that film you’ll appreciate this one a lot. Especially if you don’t have a problem with Reilly’s comedy overtaking that more melancholic tone every now and then.
“Submarine,” meanwhile, is hard to discuss without addressing the Wes Anderson similarities. The main kid is, I agree, a bit like Max Fischer as played by young Bud Cort (with a little of Hugh O’Conor from “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” minus the homicidal tendencies), and there are plenty of references in the film that almost seem intentionally in tribute to “Rushmore” in particular. Also, the heavy use of zooms is Anderson-like. But I also thought of many other recent coming of age movies, especially “Donnie Darko,” and other young romances, like “(500) Days of Summer.”
I almost want to call “Submarine” the “TRON: Legacy” of the coming of age genre for all that it evokes. That’s unfair, of course, for a movie that many people — including me — love very much in spite of their recognition of comparable precursors. I also think it’s fitting for movies like this to include much allusion to its ancestors. Don’t teens tend to like stuff that can be connected to other things they like? Isn’t that how we make our first friends and crushes, because of like interests?
And shouldn’t teen movies, like their subjects, therefore parade influences and interests clearly as if they’re wearing tshirts or hanging posters of their favorite bands and films? It’s like how every coming of age character mentions a book or few books they prefer, which is often meant to also reflect the tastes and tone of the film(makers). In “Submarine,” by the way, those books are “Catcher in the Rye,” “King Lear” and a volume of Nietzsche.
There are actually a number of things about “Submarine” that I like as much or more than its ancestors. The style and cinematography may call to mind Anderson, but there’s something distinctively magical and beautiful about the way it looks and feels that never comes off as patterned off something else. Richard Ayoade definitely has a vision all his own, and you can see it in the few surreal touches as well as in the performances, which remind of Ayoade’s own acting work. In the lead, relative newcomer Craig Roberts is a greater talent and gives much funnier delivery than both Jason Schwartzman and Jake Gyllenhaal in their breakthroughs.
And how refreshing it is to have a love interest (Yasmin Page, who co-starred with Emma Roberts in “Ballet Shoes”) for the weird young man that isn’t a manic pixie dream girl or a popular type of girl who is obviously out of his reach (see “Terri”). It’s also great that she’s not otherwise easily defined, partly self-set mystery and later just clearly adolescently confused. I initially thought she was going to be the same old non-romantic we see in so many other movies (often played by Zooey Deschanel), who ends up breaking the heart of the boy who gets in too deep. But she is more complicated. As is he. And the relationship goes up and down and is far more realistic, full of emotional ignorance and trepidation, than was expected.
“Submarine” is definitely my favorite coming of age movie in a long time.