Submarine (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Submarine (2011)

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I have sort of a weird thing to get off my chest: I don't feel that there has been a film set in high school that properly represents myself. Believe me, I've looked, but I've never been able to relate. I was never that interested in sex, or drugs, or being popular or going to prom. There never seemed to be a place for the character “outside” it all; the character who didn't want to play the “game” of high school and just wanted to get it over and done with.

Being older and better versed in film and film conventions than I was back the, I realize that such a character would make for a pretty dull film. I also realize that the fact that I'm pushing 30 and still concerned about my representation in high school-aged dramas sounds at best “pathetic” and at worst “troublesome,” but I think it helps clarify my stance on the genre (or at least my stance circa junior high).

I also think that Oliver Tate might be the first protagonist of a teen film that I can really relate to, the first one that comes close to expressing how I experienced high school and the world. I'm not sure if I should be comforted or horrified by this revelation. Maybe by the end of this review you can tell me.

Replace those French crooners with Devo and this is pretty much my high school days.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is sort of like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, but less “quirky” and more “neurotic.” He's not so much “wise beyond his years” as he is distant and calculating He understands the “game” of high school; how to become popular, get the girl and influence people. He tries to win the heart of Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) not so much for love, but because he sees her as the easiest mark, being almost as unpopular as himself.

He's also obsessed with keeping things running smoothly. His parents are (possibly) having marital problems, or so his constant snooping and studying of their habits have lead him to believe. His behavior is at once both endearing and disturbing. He knows how people work and he knows that he's smarter than them. He's got his whole life figured out and he's going to sort out everyone else's, though his actions aren't quite as altruistic as they sound.

Oliver sees his life as a film. At times it's a somber documentary, at others, a bittersweet romantic comedy, but always he's behind the lens, looking out and controlling the action. While the trailers might tell you this is the story of Oliver winning Jordana's heart, or saving his parents' marriage, really it's the story of what happens when Oliver realizes that he can't control everything in the world as if it were a film.

Maybe I'm alone on this, but this is absolutely how I saw the world at 15. I was better than everyone else, smarter. I could see high school for the shallow little popularity game that it was. I didn't care about the prom or being popular. I was already planning that big “fuck you” comeback at the 10 year reunion where I'd lord my good fortune over everyone who ever picked on me. This film absolutely captures not only those feelings of detachment, but also those completely laughable feelings of superiority.

How we always envision it...

Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are really incredible as the neurotic and obsessive Oliver and the troubled and slightly dangerous Jordana, respectively. What I like about their performances, and really the movies as a whole, is how they feel more like actual people and not your stock film teen archetypes. There's no scene where the score swells and they exorcise their demons by confiding in each other. That would be too much like the film Oliver wants his life to be. Instead they just sort of passively-aggressively mention their problems and have little burst of anger at each other. You know, like real kids.

There's some absolutely stellar performances from the supporting cast, too. Sally Hawkins, who I also loved in Made in Dagenham, and Noah Taylor play Oliver's parents who's relationship may or may not be falling apart. And even though I'm mentioning Paddy Considine last, he really steal every scene he's in as the scummy New Age guru who shares a past with Oliver's mom.

Since I haven't heaped enough praise on this film yet, I should really heap some on first-time director, Richard Ayoade. I've been a fan of Richard's comedy work in front of the camera in The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, but he really shines behind the camera as well. I suppose I expected the writing to be good, but I really didn't expect such stunning cinematography. In particular, there's a nightmare sequence that is utterly amazing in terms of both tone and imagery.

...and how it really looks.

But for all of the great moments in the film, there's one that really hits home for me. Near the end of the film, Oliver asks about his father's depression, what it feels like and then there's this beautiful moment where Oliver realizes how similar he and his father are, how both of them suffer this paralyzing inability to reach out to the women they love. Is it fear? Is it depression? Whatever it is, it draws the two of them closer together.

I've had those moments, those conversations with my own father (though typically on much lighter subjects). There's that indescribable feeling, that deeper understanding of not only who he is, but, by extension, who you are that goes unspoken. Submarine absolutely nails that feeling. Submarine is a coming of age story, but it's not just about sex and high school and “finding yourself.” It's also about beginning to see your parents less as the mythical gods of childhood and more as normal people going through the same shit you are.

Submarine is a film that speaks to both myself at 15 and myself now. I can relate to Oliver's detachment, desire to control and feelings of superiority while at the same time realize how silly it, and I, really was. And then Submarine pats me on the head and says “It's alright, we all were.”

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Posted by Jacob

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  1. Interesting take on it … I thought Oliver was a very relatable protagonist – I myself being somewhat like you in high school – but the movie just fell apart towards the end as the focus shifted away from him.

    I still maintain that the best high school movie of my youth – at least for now – is “Easy A.” Olive is my hero.

  2. I don’t think that the focus shifted away from Oliver so much as it shifted the focus of the conflict. It served to highlight his awkwardness; his refusal to make himself uncomfortable by trying to control everyone else’s lives. When he realized he couldn’t control the situation with Jordana’s parents, he panicked and gave up so that he could focus on his parents’ issues instead. And though he paid for that choice (or perhaps because of it), I think it helped him grow as a person.

    Thanks for the comment, though! I’m always glad to hear other people’s opinions, especially when they disagree with me.

    I’ll definitely check out “Easy A,” too! It’s been on my list for a while now and this is as good a reason to move it to the top as any!

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