MostlyFilm’s Best of 2011 – Submarine

by Paul Shuttle

In the largely subjective realm of film criticism, there can be few more useful barometers of quality than whether you were moved to again return to a film once your review had been filed. The process by which a critic arrives at their film of the year may be a tortuous one  but such retrospective analysis tends to lionize the important over the good. Rather than succumbing to the futile cross-referencing of colour coordinated lists, perhaps a critic should instead consider just one question: which film do they feel most compelled to watch right now? For my part, the answer has been the same for almost every day that has passed since I first saw it. The answer is Submarine.

Submarine uses sex as the impetus to explore existential teenage angst in a world of impending divorce. 15-year-old Oliver Tate, buttoned-up coat and just-so scruffiness, is as taken with sex as any teenage boy doing without. Not just by his, but that of warring parents Lloyd and Jill, whom he observes with a detached curiosity, documenting whether their bedroom light was last set to dimmed (good) or full brightness (bad).

School comes as easily to him as you’d imagine. He idles with thoughts of his untimely demise, envisioning classmates’ tear-stricken eulogies as relayed in the wavering voice of the school principal. He passes along notes in class, and wonders whether he really, truly believes in scenery. And then there’s this girl. Her name is Jordana, even if she doesn’t look much like a Jordana. Oliver courts her from afar, awkwardly, as though beholden to the kind of self-involvement that once made ‘Wes Anderson’ a verb. His eyes emerge from behind a small notebook to look out at his paramour and her cruel schoolyard rituals. “Essentially, I disapprove of bullying” he declares, before placing imaginary chalk on imaginary blackboard, “but I must not let my principles stand in the way of progress”.

Oliver is one of those teenagers, like Bueller, MacGuff, and Penderghast before him, who doesn’t really exist anywhere but on the screen: more pocket philosopher than precocious wallflower from deepest, darkest Wales. Whatever his likelihood, he’s a joy to behold. We’re talking about a manifestly unheroic hero who deals in grand gestures while others retreat behind cool indifference. On the evening he and Jordana plan to have sex for the first time, Oliver badly misjudges the mood but hands her his post-virginity declaration anyway. It’s the sort of letter, innocent and sweet, that you like to think you might have written if youth and opportunity had so serendipitously collided.

Teen comedies are wont to explore the adolescent world through an airbrushed facade of raunchy calamity. Submarine deals instead with cancer and the quiet collapse of home. With typical clarity, Oliver takes stock. “Things were a lot less fun since Jordana’s mother might die and my parents marriage started falling apart”. He proudly states his intention to fix at least half the problem by buying his father some new aftershave. Then, a concession. “I’m drawing a blank on the cancer situation”.

The phrase ‘quintessentially British’ is a particularly loathsome one, but it rings true for Submarine. My first viewing of the film came amidst unbroken sunshine in the spring, and yet it seemed to wholly imbibe the values of grey skies, thick accents and sour dispositions. It had that slightly misty feeling I’d come to associate with The Wonder Years, both so eloquent in their recounting of Polaroid moments you recognised whether you experienced them or not. There were times when the film seemed to shoulder the deep regrets I held about my own life, only to play them back to me in agonising Technicolor. And while nostalgia hung heavy, it was neither maudlin nor prone to the strange darkness of Harold and Maude. Rather, what Submarine captured was a quite profound sense of longing, not just for the first blooms of acceptance, but the sanctity of home. When he realises his mother is about to embark on an affair with the new-age mystic from next door, Oliver abandons his grieving girlfriend to sit with his father over soup and water. Little is said. Oliver knows he should be somewhere else, just as Dad recognises that marriages such as his only fall further into disrepair with every such sorry occasion. If they don’t speak, it’s only because there’s nothing to say.

Amongst innumerable homages to Anderson and Godard, as channelled by a foppish protagonist born of Fischer and Caulfield, Submarine remains a determined, individual work. It better explores youthful romanticism than just about any film I can think of. Richard Ayoade’s script is a deeply perceptive and idealistic one, whose heartbreaking qualities are only further enriched by a soundtrack that sees Alex Turner spin bittersweet prophecies like “It might not hurt now / but it’s gonna hurt soon”. Craig Roberts, like Ellen Page before him, is a discovery who comes to us with honesty that succeeds in disarming our reflexive cynicism, itself a quality embodied by the equally revelatory Yasmin Paige. Rare is the film fortunate enough to find two such perfect leads, rarer still the one able to partner them with Sally Hawkins and an effortlessly encumbered Noah Taylor. I look back on those warm, achingly human characters, and no amount of hindsight would have me change a thing. At the time, the film felt alive and vital, so life-affirming that I was compelled to watch it again almost immediately.

Ayoade will go on to make great films – perhaps even better films – but he can never make Submarine again. The moment is already passing, and soon it will be gone. It is, in truth, the last vestige of an innocence that can’t possibly last.

Paul Shuttle blogs at Call Me Shallow.

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