In Richard Ayoade’s sharp debut film, Oliver Tate is a precocious 15-year-old Welsh virgin who has a crush on a tough girl, Johanna, and a mother who might just be cheating on his sad-sack dad. To deal with such mature sexual dilemmas, a sheltered kid like Oliver has two options: retreat into confused insecurity, or advance with absurd, unjustified bravado. Like so many know-nothing know-it-alls before him, Oliver chooses to blunder into the breach, shielded by his oversize black toggle coat and armed with nothing more than a black notebook, in which he plots elaborate, idiotic plans for Johanna’s seduction and his parents’ future happiness.
As the bob-haired Johanna, newcomer Yasmin Paige is the rare manic pixie dream girl who doesn’t trade her own interior life for a kiss: a more grounded Juno, without the catchphrases. Her mother is dying, and she’s constructed a tough-cookie façade that would be obvious to anyone older than Oliver. Played by hangdog, hollow-eyed Craig Roberts, Oliver has a soft, blank baby face that undermines his cockiness, but when he joins Johanna in bullying a fat girl, the humiliating hazing somehow sparks a romance. When Oliver’s parents go out for the night, he invites Johanna over, dresses as if for a job interview, and decorates his bedroom with red balloons and roses. Johanna is repulsed by his cluelessness, yet moved by his sincerity.
This wry, wonderfully detailed film catches the enormous imbalance of a morose teen with no life experience other than the thousands of fictional and pop-culture references that fill his head and his room: A sketch of Woody Allen’s head hangs over Oliver’s bed. Serge Gainsbourg records tile his floor. He gives Johanna a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and a book by Nietzsche. Even the spare, original score, by the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, sounds like pop nostalgia.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Oliver’s bitter mum (a subdued Sally Hawkins) and infuriatingly depressed dad (Lloyd Tate) are more than just background noise. When Oliver gets into a fight with another boy over his girl, they’re thrilled to find out that their introverted, strangely dressed son is not gay. The scene could have been played for easy laughs, but Ayoade uses it to expose Oliver’s palpable sense of alienation. Similarly, Oliver’s all-consuming worry that his mother might be cheating on his father feels like a gag at first. But the more he takes the threat seriously, the more the film does too. Even Graham, the ludicrous new-age shyster ex-boyfriend of Oliver’s mother (Paddy Considine), becomes a sympathetic figure: a lost bohemian gone bust.
Ayoade respectfully acknowledges his debt to Wes Anderson: The film’s log line is straight out of Rushmore. But whereas Anderson’s hyper-referential films have become dioramas of Pantone-perfect dream homes, Ayoade’s stylized aesthetic feels more lived-in, and recognizably human. It’s twee, but it isn’t pastiche. It’s a drama about a kid whose inner life is pastiche. What Submarine does particularly well is nail the noble and relatable futility of Oliver’s messy attempt to get everything exactly right in a world where such perfection is impossible.