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“I’ve tried smoking a pipe, flipping coins,listening exclusively to French crooners,” informs the narrator of writer-director Richard Ayoade’s debut, Submarine. “I even had a brief hat phase, but nothing stuck.” The narrator is Oliver Tate, a precocious, self-conscious, gloomy 15-year-old from Wales who never stops narrating. “I’m not sure I believe in scenery,” he says, apropos of nothing except his fantasy that he’s in “a documentary about a prominent thinker who’s struggled with unspeakable loss.” In other words, the narrator is annoying.
And if you take an instant dislike to this kid—whose “charm” is so forced and unrelenting it’s nearly impossible not to—the film itself doesn’t have much hope. A coming-of-age tale in the deadpan vein of the superior Rushmore, Submarine was adapted by British comedian Ayoade from a novel, and follows two storylines. One is Oliver’s romance with Jordana (Yasmin Paige, the most memorable presence here), a scowling girl with bobbed hair and a fondness for “light arson” and moderate bullying. The second involves Oliver’s meddling in his parents’ marriage. His father (Noah Taylor) is a depressed academic who spends a lot of time in his bathrobe. His mother (Sally Hawkins) is basically, well, Sally Hawkins as June Cleaver. Both are soft-spoken and seem to take barely a passing interest in their son’s shenanigans, except for his mother’s reported belief that Oliver suffers from mental illness, which he encourages by saying textbook-psycho things.
But that doesn’t mean Oliver isn’t highly involved in their business, going so far as to monitor their sex life via daily checks of the dimmer switch in their bedroom. When mum’s ex-boyfriend (Paddy Considine), a mulletted mystic and motivational speaker, starts hanging around a little too often, Oliver makes it his mission to ensure she doesn’t cheat on dad. And so he spies, tries to spur his father to action, and even forges a letter (on his retro typewriter, of course) in which his father talks a little dirty in an attempt to get that dimmer switch to half-mast again. It’s so fucking charming.
More tolerable—if only by a smidge—is Oliver’s relationship with Jordana. The film’s only sweet sequence has Oliver picturing their courtship as a Super 8 movie, a grainy montage of the two running around on the beach, riding bikes, and doing whatever else young people in love do. It’s pretty much the only time Jordana really smiles, preferring to glower at her beau as she singes his leg hair or he makes a case for them to have sex. (Predictably, the night they schedule said intercourse is dryly wacky.) We find out, though, that Jordana has a reason to be depressed, a circumstance that Oliver makes even more miserable by his uncharacteristically cowardly behavior.
Submarine ends on a cheerful if indie-dictated open-ended note, which would certainly please Oliver’s cinema-obsessed side. “Sometimes I wish a big film crew was following my every move,” he meta-sighs at one point. You’ll wish that one hadn’t.