The coming-of-age film is easily one of the riskiest genres in which a filmmaker can dabble. That there’s no shortage of them isn’t as big a problem as the simple fact that there happen to be a fair number of great or at least highly memorable titles in the canon. And just as it’s impossible for a novelist writing about those wonder years to avoid the inevitable comparison with The Catcher In The Rye, so filmmakers often suffer by comparison, though the “reminiscent of…” pool is a bit larger.

With the exception of teens in extreme situations (eg Carrie, Mysterious Skin) the varieties of experience in most coming-of-age films are usually limited to some combination of first love, social awkwardness, insecurity, rebellion and the hormonal effects of puberty. The challenge for filmmakers is how to present these in a way that, if not unique, is at least memorable or resonant. In the best of these films, it usually comes down to a strong central character – think of the young men featured in Gregory’s Girl, Harold And Maude, Rushmore, or even The 400 Blows, to name but a few. With Submarine, Richard Ayoade has created a coming-of-age film that ranks among the best, an even more impressive feat considering it is his first narrative feature film.

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Based on the novel of the same name by Welsh author Joe Dunthorne, Submarine’s greatest strength is its richly developed lead character Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), an offbeat, imaginative and unreliable narrator who leads us on a journey through his own love and loss, as well as his concerted efforts to save his parents’ marriage. A keenly observational type, Oliver keeps detailed mental notes of everything from the behavioral tics of his classmates to the frequency of his parents’ sexual union.

Entranced by the aloof and seemingly unapproachable Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a cynical pyromaniac in a pageboy haircut, Oliver sets out to win her heart, though she detests anything that even hints at romance. His newfound feelings of love and lust clash with the situation at home, which finds his parents’ (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor) lifeless but stable marriage threatened by a flash new-age guru (Paddy Considine) who moves in next door. It’s a difficult balancing act further complicated by Jordana’s own familial crisis, and the film’s honest and direct approach in depicting the emotional limitations of a teen is a perspective that’s become something of a rarity in coming-of-age romances, which far too often pad their lead characters with a psychological complexity that doesn’t match their age.

Though it boasts a sharp, beautifully written screenplay and stellar performances by the entire cast, the film doesn’t forge any new ground thematically. However, Ayoade’s aesthetic choices as well as his many cinematic nods make the film a genuine treat for the cinephile set, but not to the extent of alienating those who may not grab the references to Bergman, Roeg, or the French New Wave. From its unquestionably Godard-inspired opening credits, Bergman-esque repeated use of fading to red, and implied or explicit odes to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, or Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, Ayoade has peppered the film with auteurist references to those who clearly were an influence on him.

Though the film has its fair share of quirk, is highly stylised and draws great attention to its period-piece-setting, it keeps those elements in check, and consistently secondary to its emotional core and ensemble of fully fleshed-out characters. A perfectly realised entry in the genre, Submarine more than earns its place alongside the handful of greats that came before it.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2011
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An imaginative 15-year-old is as interested in losing his virginity as he is in saving his parents’ marriage. Plus read our interview with Richard Ayoade.
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Leanne McGrath *****

Director: Richard Ayoade

Writer: Richard Ayoade, Joe Dunthorne

Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Noah Taylor

Year: 2010

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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