In “Submarine,” the directorial debut of British comedian Richard Ayoade, newcomer Craig Roberts turns intense discomfort into fine art. Playing the 15-year-old Oliver Tate, Roberts holds his deer-caught-in-headlights stare from start to finish. Equally intent on landing a girlfriend and saving his parents’ marriage, Oliver lives in a frantic universe built from his constant phobias. That’s hardly a groundbreaking achievement for the coming-of-age genre, but Ayoade’s bittersweet tale is consistently endearing and distracts from its derivative core.
Broken into three parts, “Submarine” takes its cues from Oliver’s voiceover as he guides viewers through the details of his life. When not engaged in activities like reading the dictionary by the beach, he yearns to woo his snarky classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) in a desperate bid lose his virginity. But that task runs second to a lingering fear that his mother (Sally Hawkins) has been cheating on Oliver’s mopey father (Noah Taylor) with her first lover, the laughably self-centered New Age life coach Graham T. Ourvis (Paddy Considine, the most flimsy character in an otherwise impressive ensemble).
These conundrums come and go with scant dramatic payoff. However, Ayoade’s engaging stylistic approach maintains the illusion of intrigue by inhabiting Oliver’s subjectivity. It’s hard to say what type of filmmaker Ayoade may turn into over time, but Oliver is a different story: The character imagines a movie based on his life that “will only have the budget for a zoom out,” at which point the camera dutifully zooms out. He envisions “the Super-8 footage of memory,” where his favorite moments from his relationship with Jordana continually play out. These restless techniques, which reflect Ayoade’s experience directing music videos, effectively create the sense that “Submarine” itself takes place entirely within the constraints of Oliver’s mind.
As a feature-length conceit, it moves along at a breezy pace that makes it stand out from the current comedy standard. Where “Bridesmaids” has plenty of solid gags, it’s not much to look at; “Submarine” always has something impressive to watch even when its plot is on autopilot. Based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel, the movie’s structure translates written prose into cinematic language, from the persistent narration to the reliance on chapters to sustain its progression.
“Submarine” owes much to the complex portrait of its leading man: While the movie externalizes his thoughts, Oliver’s plucky naivete means that even he can’t fully understand the world as he sees it. Sympathizing with his father, a soft-spoken marine biologist who’s equally uncomfortable in his own skin, Oliver apparently sees a future version of himself. However, he never says as much, possibly because he hasn’t recognized it yet. If “Submarine” burrows into Oliver’s thoughts, it also keenly dissects them.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A festival favorite since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, “Submarine” should do decent business in limited release thanks to strong reviews and will forward the emerging career of its star.
criticWIRE grade: B+