NZIFF ’11: Submarine

nziff ’11: Submarine
dir. Richard Ayoade | UK | 2010 | 97 mins.

Richard Ayoade, star of TV’s The I.T. Crowd and The Mighty Boosh—and co-creator of the great cult comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace—has, in his début feature, created an utterly charming, visually dazzling coming-of-age comedy that stylishly nods to films and filmmakers past and present but never feels contrived or gratuitously sentimental. The plot, set in a permanently frigid late-’80s Swansea, revolves around 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, Cary Fukunaga’s forthcoming Jane Eyre adaptation) as he multi-tasks, trying to keep his parents’ marriage from falling apart but simultaneously aiming to lose his virginity to the bob-haired, rosy-cheeked object of his affections, his classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), before his next birthday.

Roberts’ performance is sure to make him a hot property in the coming years, and Paige’s star will hopefully rise, too: they’re the perfect match, and not only because they have (sort of) matching duffle coats—his is a deep blue, hers a bright red over a giant maroon cable-knit jumper. Oliver’s parents are played by a bearded Noah Taylor and an alternately bashful and obstinate Sally Hawkins (like Jordana, hers is a bob hairdo), and while Ayoade doesn’t give them too many good one-liners, they do get quite a few choice moments in Oliver’s fantasy sequences. Paddy Considine plays Oliver’s neighbour—and the reason for his parents’ marriage teetring on the edge—a new-age mystic with a hideous mural on the site of his panel van, a ridiculous ’80s fauxhawk and a dubious moneymaking series of lectures on the importance of ‘light’ (possibly has a source of healing?), some of which he’s incorporated into a collection of SFX-heavy home videos. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, he could be the ur-Ed Hardy.

The film is a technical and visual achievement, as well: the cinematography, by Erik Wilson—who mostly works in TV but also shot Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, also in the festival—is really beautiful, and the sometimes complex camerawork, particularly in a couple of fantasy sequences and in some of the Godard references, is equally spectacular. (There’s also a fun use of Philips’ freeze-motion ‘Carousel’ technology.) The incorporation of the mystic neighbour’s infomercial/self-help videotapes, in our retro/instant-on YouTube era, is brilliant; they seem like they could have been pulled from a witch-house video.

Five songs by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys are used, some in montages, throughout the film, but the best is (probably on purpose) saved for the closing credits. Ayoade clearly loves movies more than anything, and his knowledge is damned near encyclopædic. The references he includes in this film—(fleetingly) to Les quatre cents coups and a small handful of other nouvelle vague films, including a recurring Godardian shot of Jordana twisting her hair around her little finger; (very briefly) to Charlie Kaufman’s writer-in-a-stream-of-consciousness mode; to Hal Ashby (indirectly, inasmuch as Oliver’s coat is something Bud Cort might’ve worn in Harold and Maude) and to Wes Anderson (directly, and more often); and to the wonderful way John Hughes put a few too many words in the mouths of his teenage characters to make them seem wise beyond their years—are more reverent (and considerably more subtle) than you’d expect for a first-time director.

There’s a twinned nod, I think, to Donnie Darko in a minor plot thread in the third act; similarly, the new-age mystic’s motivational speech doubles as this film’s fake motivational video-lecture/Sparkle Motion performance. (No Duran Duran here, though; there is, fascinatingly, almost no ‘yuppie’ feel to anything in this film aside from the goofy neighbour’s antics. Maybe Wales skipped the go-go ’80s entirely..?) The Andersonian reading-aloud of (typewritten) letters device—which narration comes wholesale from the novel and is condensed and trimmed; it’s not an invention of the screenplay—doesn’t feel inappropriate with the film’s overall rhythm, not least because it’s employed only twice. There are a couple of movie homages in the film’s production design, too: Oliver has a replica of the original poster for Le Samouraï on his bedroom ceiling and, anachronistically, this illustration of Woody Allen (or something that looks very much like it) stuck on a little noticeboard-type thing next to his bed with a bunch of other little magazine clippings.

It might superficially seem like wanton ‘quirky’ hipster-bait—what with the typewriters, the coy movie references, the fact that it’s set in the ’80s, the haircuts & the clothes, the 8-mm home movies they make, and the vaguely mopey singer-songwriter soundtrack, including Serge Gainsbourg, briefly—but Submarine genuinely is a sweet, authentic teenage love story that refreshingly delivers pure joy in spades.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.

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