Submarine(The Weinstein Company) marks the feature-film directing debut of the 34-year-old British comedian Richard Ayoade. A deadpan adolescent romance in the vein of The Graduate, Rushmore, or Harold and Maude, this wistful little movie can feel thrillingly new one moment and familiar as an old sweater the next. Submarine isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a terrific first one. Leaving the theater, you feel you’ve been taken in hand by a director of tremendous promise, and you can’t wait to see what he does next.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) introduces himself to us via a morose staccato voice-over: He’s a 15-year-old Welsh boy with vague literary aspirations, imagining as he stares out to sea that he’s “in a documentary about a prominent thinker who’s struggled with unspeakable loss.” Oliver is melodramatic, unreliable both as a narrator and as a friend, and not 100 percent likable—an interesting choice for the coming-of-age genre, which tends to cast its heroes in a flattering light. Oliver isn’t above taunting the school outcast to the point of humiliated tears in an attempt to impress his glowering, bob-haired classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a fellow outlier with a taste for “light arson.” (Later, as a romantic gesture, Jordana takes a match and singes his leg hair.)
Oliver can’t decipher Jordana’s mysterious inner life, but he’s even more perplexed about how to handle his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor, two superb actors who underplay their parts to hilarious effect). Jill and Lloyd Tate haven’t had sex in seven months (a fact Oliver learns via “routine searches” of their bedroom). Lloyd, a marine biologist, has spent years floundering in depression, and Jill is contemplating an affair with her skeezy ex-boyfriend Graham (Paddy Considine), a motivational speaker who sees color auras and drives an airbrush-painted van.
Nearly every choice Oliver makes over the course of the next few months, as he tries to win and keep Jordana and save his parents’ marriage, is pitiably, disastrously wrong. But his descent into misery is narrated with humor and verve. The material is familiar (Salinger, Truffaut, and Wes Anderson have all taken us on similar tours of the self-dramatizing adolescent mind), but the screen crackles with ideas: New Wave-style jump cuts, fades to alternating blue and red screens, and fourth-wall breaking moments in which Oliver glances sidelong at the camera or, indeed, seems to take over directorial duties himself. An achingly beautiful montage of his brief happy time with Jordana is introduced with the words, “I’ve already turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory.”
Ayoade, who adapted Submarine from a novel by the Welsh writer Joe Dunthorne, was the co-creator and co-star of a short-lived, inimitably weird TV series called Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and currently appears on the critically acclaimed British sitcom The IT Crowd. A career comedian would seem to be an unexpected director for this minor-key mood piece, but Ayoade’s touch is deft and sure. The film was shot on location in Swansea, Wales, a bleak, chilly seaside landscape that’s nicely complemented by the mournful love songs of Alex Turner. The film closes on a moment of emotional uplift that feels unearned—it should have ended one minute earlier—but by then, Submarine has done its work. A director who can make a white boy’s coming-of-age story feel this fresh and funny is a director whose next movie I want to see.