Review: ‘Submarine’ offers up shimmering, lovely coming-of-age story

There are few genres that reveal quite as much about the filmmaker as the coming of age story.  “Submarine” may be based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, but there is such a personal quality to the film that a few days after I saw it at Sundance, I happened to spot director Richard Ayoade in the lobby of the Yarrow Hotel, and the urge to walk over and give him a hug ran through me.  I resisted, but that’s the way “Submarine” affected me.  It is a wonderful film, smart and funny and beautifully performed, and it speaks well of what Ayoade is capable of behind the camera.

If Americans know Ayoade, it’s probably from his work on “The IT Crowd,” a sitcom from the UK where he plays Moss, an uber-nerd who would make the guys on “The Big Bang Theory” look like Shaft by comparison.  His co-star on the show, Chris O’Dowd, made his big American breakthrough in films last month as Kristen Wiig’s romantic interest in “Bridesmaids,” and I’m curious to see what happens with him as a result.  It is important, though, for Ayoade’s film to make some sort of a splash, because I want more work from him in the future.  No… I’ll go one step further.  Based on how good “Submarine” is, I need more movies from him.  Absolutely.

Looking at just a trailer or images from the film, one might suspect that “Submarine” is just a “Rushmore” clone, but despite a few surface aesthetic similarities, they are very different movies.  “Submarine” tells the story of Oliver Tate, a fifteen year old Welsh boy struggling with his own romantic longings and the slow-motion car crash that is the marriage between his parents.  Craig Roberts plays Oliver, and he captures that fine line between precocious knowledge and childish naiveté with surgical precision.  His fumbling love story with the permanently-scowling Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) would be engine enough for the film, and both of them are excellent in their work together, but the story involving his parents is what tipped the film from good to great for me.

Sally Hawkins has been giving one eccentric, engaging performance after another in the last few years, and I am fascinated by her.  She plays Jill, Oliver’s mother, and Noah Taylor plays Lloyd, Oliver’s father, a pairing that yields pretty wonderful results.  Lloyd’s fought a lifelong battle with depression, and there are times when he simply can’t deal with things, taking to bed, retreating into silence.  Jill has had enough of it, and when an old friend shows up in their small town, Jill finds herself drawn to him, considering infidelity in a very real way.  Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) is a self-help guru whose act seems transparently silly, but Jill is so hungry for tenderness and human contact that she looks past the surface absurdity to see the opportunity that Graham represents.

I love that Considine can deliver a performance that is dead serious and terrifying in one film, then can turn around and play a total goofball like Graham.  He is one of the most versatile, gifted actors working right now, and he plays this with the same intensity that he would bring to a serious lead role.  Because he makes Graham such a towering tit, it gives both Taylor and Hawkins something specific to play off of, and it gives Roberts a very specific target for his adolescent anger.  He needs to see his mother and father happy before he can figure out his own life, and Roberts manages to make every urge of Oliver’s feel grounded and real.

Although the film has a great sense of style, and Ayoade grounds it well in a time and place he knows intimately, there is also a timelessness to it that makes the film feel like something that would communicate to anyone.  He makes great use of songs in the film, and the score by Andrew Hewitt ties it together with an emotional delicacy.  Erik Wilson’s photography is lush and gorgeous, and it gives the film the feeling of a memory.  Ayoade orchestrates it all in a way that suggests depth that none of his other work has suggested before now, and the movie feels to me like something genuine, something he had to make.  It is one of the best movies released to theaters so far in 2011, and I strongly urge you to track it down.  This is one you’ll want to see now, before everyone else catches up with it on video and realizes how great it is, and once you see it, my guess is you’ll feel just as strongly about Ayoade as I do.

“Submarine” is now playing in limited release.