In a small town in Wales, circa 1986, 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) lives with his parents in a big house overlooking the smaller residences down below and the ocean out yonder. He sees himself as a true individual, unlike anyone else that has ever lived. He must not be including characters of the silver screen, since he's an amalgamation if there ever was one between Harold Chasen in 1971's "Harold and Maude" and Max Fischer in 1998's "Rushmore
." Oliver is capable of attraction, jealousy and empathetic gestures, but he shows next to none of it across his face. Were it not for knowing better, one might suspect he's the victim of a botched Botox injection that has erased all signs of personality from his physical appearance. Whether this was how Craig Roberts (2011's "Jane Eyre
") was instructed to play the role or just a poor judgment on the young actor's part, his Oliver Tate is the fatal ingredient that dooms an already way-too-calculated "Submarine" from eliciting the passionate, sentimental response it specifically seeks.
Writer-director Richard Ayoade, who cut his teeth with music videos by such bands as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arctic Monkeys, isn't shy about his influences here. From the style of Wes Anderson to the French New Wave, his is a coming-of-age story that wants to blend the bittersweet with the sardonic. It is so self-aware, however, and its lead character so stringently contrived with hipster 'tude and affectations that it's difficult to take it seriously and become emotionally invested in the lives of the people involved. Oliver, who reads the dictionary for fun and likes to imagine the overblown reactions of his peers and community were he to die, chatters away incessantly in voice-over. He envisions filmmaking techniques meant to match specific scenes from his life. He checks the dimmer switch in the bedroom of parents Jill (Sally Hawkins) and Lloyd (Noah Taylor) to judge whether or not they've had sex (current dry period: seven months solid). He spies on his mum when she attends a motivational workshop led by virile neighborhood mystic Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine). All the while, he goes through phases trying to find an interest that fits him, and then he locates one: alluring, semi-pyromaniacal outsider Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige). A classmate who's not very popular herself and, thus, a perfect fit, Jordana likes the attention Oliver pays her, and likes him even more after he sticks up for her while in the clutches of a bully. Eventually, family life starts to encroach on their relationship, with Jordana's admittance that her mother is suffering from a brain tumor keeping Oliver from coming clean with her about his plans to save his parents' troubled marriage.
Based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne, "Submarine" isn't without amusements or a little compassion, and the quirky, well-chosen soundtrack is a nice compliment to both the mysteriously attractive Wales setting and the tightening bond between Oliver and Jordana. A montage of cavorting and offbeat fire-starting as the two of them hang out together around town, set to the song "Hiding Tonight" by Alex Turner, is a mixture of weird and cute that works against the odds. In other scenes, the use of suspenseful, poundingly dramatic instrumental music pays clever homage to Bernard Hermann. There's even an unexpected nod to 1973's Nicolas Roeg masterpiece "Don't Look Now
," a sure-fire sign that director Richard Ayoade knows his cinema history. As a narrative, the film is a little too loose and aimless to gather up a whole lot of active interest, and its all-in-jest acerbic side eventually grows tedious. Oliver's father Lloyd, a marine biologist who can't remember the last time he wasn't depressed, is a sad character who doesn't develop beyond his perpetual ennui, while mother Jill alternates between overbearing and flippant. Does she really want to work out her marriage, or is she just settling? One never really finds out.
Craig Roberts is neither bad nor miscast as Oliver Tate, but the reading of the character does nothing to endear him to viewers. A conduit for the screenplay's overpleased cleverness, he never gets the chance to break free and lay his heart on the line. In the one scene where he doeshe is asked to get up in front of the class and read a note about Jordana that he's caught writingdirector Ayoade makes the woeful decision to cut too early. Because of this, his touching written words are not uttered and Jordana's reaction to hearing them is never seen onscreen. This, then, strips the third act of the dramatic impact it could have had, rendering the final scene pat and idealistic rather than happily earned. As Jordana, Yasmin Paige is a delightful presence, able to play moody and sunny at the same time. If nothing else, through Paige's performance one can see why Oliver would be smitten with her. In supporting roles, Sally Hawkins (2010's "Never Let Me Go
") and Noah Taylor (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
") make the most of Oliver's vaguely drawn parents, and Paddy Considine (2007's "Hot Fuzz
") is grating as the open-for-ridicule Graham Purvis. A little of this character goes a long way.
Early in "Submarine," Oliver feels guilty when he causes a heavy-set girl he and his friends have been playfully taunting, one Zoe Preece (Lily McCann), to fall into a deep mud puddle. When she transfers schools following this incident, he decides to send a message to her by way of her only confidante, the school lunch lady. His actions are valiant, but this subplot is forgotten about thereafter and lacks the satisfying payoff of its source material. It's an uneven inclusion in a film that hasn't the weight and doesn't pack the wallop it wants to. Like its lead character of Oliver Tate, the film is preoccupied by its own self-consciousness. It means well, but it doesn't care enough.