Viewing Habits: Submarine

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Oliver Tate fancies himself a hero. He wants to save a girl from being bullied, to save his parents’ crumbling marriage, and to win over the girl he likes. Oliver Tate doesn’t play sports, he isn’t an overachieving academic, and he hasn’t taken up drugs. Oliver Tate is actually a passionate teenage boy with an active imagination and a propensity for affectations. Where was this boy when I was growing up?

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Oliver is the lead in Submarine, a quiet coming-of-age film that encapsulates the typical teen experience. If you ran Harold and Maude, The Breakfast Club, Rushmore, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete through a blender, you might come up with something similar to Submarine.

This movie seems like it would be a straightforward tale of misfits in love and learning from their love but inevitably drifting apart because one of them wants to be normal and find normal love. Despite his goal to be “the best boyfriend in the world,” Oliver does not allow himself to disappear entirely into his romantic relationship. Instead he becomes preoccupied with his parents’ romantic relationship (the dimmer switch, an indication of romance, has not been dimmed for seven months) and takes on the mission to save their marriage. His plans for wooing Jordana and keeping his parents together are often ill-fated and he suffers the consequences.

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Submarine is full of charms and quirks. It’s set in that quaint time (late 1980s-mid 1990s) when we still used typewriters, listened to audio cassettes, and looked things up in books. Oliver’s parents are quirky and neurotic. Oliver and his love interest Jordana Bevan run around and do charmingly quirky things like run around in whimsical sunglasses and set fire to things and sit together in an abandoned bathtub in a field. Through Oliver’s constant narration, he shares the fantasies and anxieties of an overactive teenage imagination. He reveals his fears of getting older, turning into his parents, and not having memorable life experiences.

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The visual style of the movie borrows inspiration from the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry. You may forgive the freeze frames and deliberate typography once you get an eyeful of Swansea’s scenic views and the Welsh coastline.

What’s refreshing about Submarine is it’s approach to teen angst. Director Richard Ayoade (best known as The IT Crowd‘s Maurice Moss) presents an authentic account of kids fumbling through adolescence, trying out different interests, looking for ways to fit in and stand out, and making mistakes all the while. I’ve just started reading the novel by Joe Dunthorne from which the film was adapted. Ayoade seems to stay true to the characters and the tone in his screenplay adaptation, although the book is clearly set in 1997 and Oliver creates more situations in order to get his parents’ attention. I like how both the book and the movie capture the doughy doe-eyed innocence of the early teen years. Yes, Oliver does attempt to be sophisticated and clever, but he never comes across as slick or arrogant like a Ferris Bueller or Zack Morris.

Submarine is a gentle comedy that may arouse nostalgia for your own adolescence or simply inspire you to read the dictionary and listen to Serge Gainsbourg.

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