By Ray Pride
Readily identifiable references to earlier movies surge with the strong pulse of “Submarine,” yet the first feature by writer-director Richard Ayoade is a sublime piece of work on its own, a comedy that plays, among many other things, like a lost chapter, a few pages of apocrypha appended to the most larkish moments of the French Nouvelle Vague.
Oliver (Craig Roberts, a wide-eyed ringer for the young Harmony Korine) is a bright but odd 15-year-old trying on new identities among bullying classmates. He also eavesdrops on the tattered marriage of his mom Jill (Sally Hawkins, perky but sternly impatient) and dad Lloyd (Noah Taylor, desiccated blade of a face a concatenation of life’s disappointments folded in and making wet eyes bulge), as well as their New Age-y neighbor Graham T. Purvis (a giddy Paddy Considine) who has a distant history with Jill. More importantly, he meets Jordana (Yasmin Paige), more than his equal in prehensile desires and possibly violent conclusions. A thin, nervous smirk rises as an ineffectual wall against the challenges from Oliver’s classmates, followed by his wittily daffy voice-over. “I don’t approve of scenes,” the self-serious and affected teen thinks, hardly realizing he’s dying for them.
An interview with Ayoade the other week was one of the keenest, quietest conversations I’ve had about movies in an age. A conversation, rather than an interview, because every single direction one of us would push a comparison or observation toward would blend into another specific, anecdotal observation. Ayoade wasn’t keen when I tried to align his seaside-set Swansea, Wales “Submarine” alongside the wittily ironic movies of the great, long-silent Scots writer-director Bill Forsyth, but “New Wave” perked up his ears, and he cited Louis Malle’s “Zazie dans le Metro,” based on the linguistically antic novel by Raymond Queneau as key.
It’s a narrated film about someone trying to “become a person like other people,” as the voiceover in “Taxi Driver” yearns. So Oliver is Travis Bickle? Ayoade nods. Any teenager has that potential, it seems, the “morbid” self-attention. The 33-year-old veteran of TV’s “The IT Crowd” points out that Oliver is constantly donning new gear, new hats, new identities: a poster of Alain Delon in “Le Samouraï” above his bedstead looms less as homage to a movie the filmmaker admires as another sharp dresser a teenager could never hope to grow to be. Ayoade can be specific about Oliver’s virtue: “I liked that he was sort of mean and distant and selfish. There was something very interesting about that and the voice of Oliver was very funny and pompous.”
“Harold and Maude” and “Catcher in the Rye” are other touchstones for his adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s densely chatty novel, but stretching Jordana’s haircut, being a ringer for the filmmaker Agnès Varda? Nope, Ayoade says, that is true, but take it back to Zazie, the guileless, difficult girl in the city. Jordana is also a firebug. The two bond over setting shit on fire in the most dismal of damp urban disused settings, and it’s shot in the style of the 8mm footage in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” and ends in inappropriately romantic sparklers and skyrockets. Dark-hearted and spiteful, she torpedoes lit matches like a pro. Conventionally, you get characters that are male pyros, damp bedwets, but a female pyro in a Nic Roeg “Don’t Look Now”-Red Riding Hood anorak? Oliver, rightfully, is stricken and smitten and gloriously alarmed by the prospect of a pyro cutie.
Although the movie is, by design, largely non-specific about its period (late 1980s would be a good guess), Jordana’s casual profanity impresses. In American comedies, swears are studded like peppercorns or chocolate chips. Ayoade nods, notes that Oliver doesn’t swear, even though he’s always on the lookout for new ways to pretentiously express himself; it’s the girl who’s flummoxed to the point of swears at any touch of clumsy emotion. “What the fuck? Who the fuck says, ‘Kiss me’?!” Jordana says after Oliver lunges at her lips after she’s escaped a showing of Dreyer’s “Joan of Arc.” “Fuck!” (Fire and Joan of Arc: Ayoade doesn’t even go there, but… fuck!)
“Submarine” is a rampage of all manner of stuff, and it might take weeks to find the one just word for it, yet it’s delirious with beauty that doesn’t suffocate. While bits and pieces often go meta-mad, the dialogue is rich with offhand delivery and off-kilter timing. “Her breath smelled of milk, Polo Mints and Dunhill International… Her tongue was blue from blackcurrant squash.” Page’s delivery of “Thanks for living up a fucking hill,” flat of affect, is priceless. “Fuckin’ hell,” she reacts to his idea of a first date, “Yer a serial killer.” And I did not know I live for movies that earn lines like “I decide to soften the blow with a little light arson.” And how would you mourn a lost love like Jordana’s? “And she would never burn my leg hair again.”
The ending is lovely and assured, and as it goes on, is perfect: pretty and bratty and winsome and good. And earned. It’s the sweetest “Why are you such a total dick!” has ever sounded. “Submarine” rises.
“Submarine” opens Friday, June 10 at Landmark Century Center and Cinemark Evanston.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.