What is it with contemporary British directors and supercharged, super-stylized filmmaking? Guy Richie, Tony Scott, Danny Boyle, and Edgar Wright all boldly go further than American filmmakers with faster cuts, flashier camera work, and all kinds of montage tricks, close-ups, and inserts. It's probably just a coincidence, but a funny one nevertheless. Since when did the British make Hollywood look restrained?
Now we have yet another name to add to that list with Richard Aoyade. Previously known as a TV actor (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd) and director (Community), he has recently made his first venture into the director's chair of a feature film. His Submarine is an excellent first picture, a coming of age comedy and teen romance that's as playful as one of Wright's pop-culture feasts and as sincere as a romantic teen's bad poetry--in a good way.
Aoyade isn't one to hide his influences. His 2008 music video for Vampire Weekend's "Oxford Comma", is a sub-Wes Anderson exercise with little mind of its own; a long tracking shot through a bunch of farm buildings with quirky characters running around and some Anderson intertitles tacked on just in case you didn't get it. He has improved. Submarine owes much to Anderson's Rushmore--the most obvious link being its 15 year old protagonist, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who's as endearing and peculiar as Rushmore's own 15 year old Max Fischer--but it's a singular work; highly detailed, and with a keen eye for the erratic ups and downs of teenage emotion, as well as the more tedious (but no less treacherous) relationships of the middle-class and middle-aged. Just as our Oliver is attempting to woo his first love, Jordana (Yasmin Paige), he has to stop his parents from breaking up their marriage. He monitors their sex-life by keeping tabs on the position of the dimmer switch in their bedroom.
Submarine is adapted from a book of the same name, but I came out of the film thinking that it was drawn from the director's own experience. If nothing else, we get in very close to the mind of Oliver, who provides voiceover narration throughout. We follow him in flash back mode as he observes a lecture on marine biology, and we receive his saddened commentary about his dad's habit of drinking lemon tea from an unwashed mug whenever he gets depressed (which is often). Since the film really forms itself around Oliver instead of offering a more objective vantage point, we can't help but get drawn into his idiosyncratic world. Even the elements that are familiar or derivative in the film's structure are in sync with its main character's personality. The Godard/Anderson intertitles are here, but they belong, given that we're entering the mind of a kid who's precocious and charmingly pretentious. He takes his girlfriend to see the Passion of Joan of Arc on one of their early dates and she rushes out in disgust 15 minutes in.
Fortunately, Submarine isn't cute. Oliver can be cruel, as when he gleefully bullies a pupil by pushing her into a pond, and he's slightly deluded; he gets carried away by his fantasies whenever life doesn't give him what he wants . The film, though very funny, doesn't have the breezy good cheer of, say, a John Hughes movie. When Jordana breaks Oliver's "tiny little heart", he's devastated, convinced that the pain and joys he's going through will still matter just as much 30 years down the line. And the movie plays along, showcasing plaintive shots of Oliver looking out across an endless sea. There is some irony involved, but not as much as could be expected. When Oliver's parents get their marriage into serious trouble, their situation is resolved with some comic relief and a helpless shrug. The two aren't happy together, but we get he feeling that their marriage will trudge along as they try to rekindle some sort of fondness for each other. Apparently, the young have much more say over their emotions, more choice over whether or not they can find happiness in their lives. For all of the film's exuberance, Oliver and Jordana's love is played with remarkable delicacy and seriousness.
Deep End (1970)
One of the key references for Submarine is this little known British film from acclaimed Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. For one, Deep End also stars a 15 year old boy looking for love and dealing with the uncertain territory of sexual impulse. The most overt reference to the film in Submarine is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Oliver jumping, clothed, into the deep end of a pool, just as Deep End's Mike (John Moulder Brown) does at one point. Also, there's a sign behind Oliver that says "Deep End". That this film was long thought lost (due to some sort of rights issue) and is just now getting a re-release in cinemas and on DVD is some fortuitous timing.
Mike is a different kind of awkward adolescent. Whereas Rushmore, Submarine, and most other teen movies have their main characters functioning at a higher level--either socially or intellectually--Mike is a high school drop-out who responds with child-like enthusiasm to almost everything around him. Whereas Oliver pretends he knows more about the world then he really does, Mike is too un-selfcounscious to realize that he needs to pretend. When his parents visit him while he's working his first job--as an attendant at a local bath house--he's ecstatic; "look everyone, it's me mum and dad." Mike seems to be a pretty solitary fellow, but he can't get enough of his very attractive, and older, co-worker Susan (Jane Asher, girlfriend of Paul McCartney in the mid 60s), who balances teasing him with shows of genuine affection.
Much of the film is occupied by the leisurely paced depiction of Mike and Susan working at their bathhouse. It's a place that seems at once comfortable and seedy. One the one hand there's the warm echo of the pool room where Mike and Susan spend time laughing and horsing around, on the other the ugly sight of the aging attendees who stop by to indulge their fantasies in the private bathrooms. One rather buxom lady grabs a very uncomfortable Mike by his hair and yells "dribble, dribble, shoot, shoot" as she gets herself off. A swim coach spends his time spanking his young pupils, and we later learn that he's having an affair with Susan. Mike's bathhouse allows him to satisfy his growing attraction for Susan, but more often than not, it's a place of sexual humiliation.
Sex eventually becomes something perverse in Deep End. Mike is a romantic, trying to establish a pure form of love between him and the promiscuous Susan, but he keeps following her into porno theaters and night clubs. When trying to duck out of the way of the cops, he finds himself in a brothel. It's with growing horror that we watch his innocent pursuit devolve into an obsession. Some have interpreted the film as an attempt to show the regressive sexual behavior that was an unintended consequence of the sexual revolution. I'm not sure if Skolimowski really thinks his society's values were as misguided as they are here, or if these attitudes are specific to our oddball protagonist. In any case, I prefer to look at the film as a bizarre and deeply involving study of adolescent confusion. It's too abstract to provide any real social commentary. We don't get any of Submarine's voice-over narration, but Deep End is strange enough that it eventually submerges us entirely in the insular world of Mike's fantasies. The last scene is definitely a puzzler, and without giving anything away, I'll just say that whether or not Mike finds the kind of purity he's looking for, the film is so charming and hypnotic that it achieves its own state of sublime innocence.