Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On DVD: "Submarine"

I had a Jordana. I think we all did. Jordana is Oliver Tate’s first—his first real kiss, his first sex, his first girlfriend, his first relationship, his first heartbreak. How they come together, and how they fall apart, is the subject (sort of) of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, but that description doesn’t do the film justice: it makes it sound far more sentimental and nostalgic than it is. Ayoade (who wrote the script, from Joe Dunthorne’s novel) doesn’t just remember what it is to feel the first flush of love; he also remembers the moment when you discover that someone you fancy has the capability of being just awful. And the moment when you realize that maybe that’s all an act. And the moment when you realize that you’re capable of being awful too.

Oliver (Craig Roberts) is a brainy oddball; he narrates the film with a charmingly literary voice, which is full of phrases like “bourgeois assumptions” and confessions like “I suppose it’s a bit of an affectation, but I often read the dictionary.” With its Max Fischer-esque protagonist and eye-catching execution, Submarine has a bit of a Wes Anderson vibe, but Ayoade has a looser, more casual style. He takes some time to settle on his story—the film is rigidly organized into three parts (plus a prologue and epilogue), but it is driven less by plot and structure than by mood.

His relationship with Jordana (Yasmin Paige) is not the only union in doubt; the film is equally concerned with the crumbling marriage of Oliver’s parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor), whose decreasing use of their bedroom dimmer switch—which translates directly to their rate of intercourse—has raised Oliver’s concern. So has his mother’s friendliness with the mulleted psychic next door (a wonderfully goofy Paddy Considine), whom Oliver is shocked to discover was an old flame. The teen tries to intervene, first indirectly (his ghost-written mash note to his mother is a scream), then directly (“Me and dad have discussed it. We both want to make this marriage work. Are you with us?”).

Hawkins is quite good, in a very different kind of role from her Oscar-nominated turn in Happy-Go-Lucky; in sharp contrast to that character, there’s a deeply felt sadness to her Jill. She seems a woman who can’t even imagine feeling passion or desire again, which is perhaps what that sleazeball neighbor keys in on. Lloyd, Oliver’s dad, has taken that resigned sadness seemingly to its limit—this is a man who has basically given up, and presumes there’s nothing he can do to change himself or his relationship. One of the treasures of Ayoade’s screenplay is how none of this is spelled out explicitly; he observes the behavior of these characters, through the eyes of his protagonist.

In that role, Roberts walks a tricky line: the character functions right on the verge of obnoxiousness, and a nod or two in the wrong direction loses the audience completely. We’re with him, though; he’s a charismatic and likable screen presence, always trying his best, even when he’s doing the absolutely wrong thing. Paige’s Jordana, a bob-haircutted beauty in an ever-present red coat (remember that age when everyone just wore the same damn coat all the time?) is marvelously impenetrable, and her multi-layered performance is, in many ways, the key to the film’s prickly perception of emotion and vulnerability.

Submarine is visually impressive and rocks a fast, snazzy pace, but Ayoade doesn’t hesitate to hit the brakes when need be—to hold on Jill’s heartbroken face, for example, or in the picture’s last scene, which finds the perfect, wistful note, and lets it hang there for as long as it can. Seldom has a film more astutely captured the experience of being a young man in something resembling love, and trying to negotiate those tricky waters for the first time. It’s a hard memory to get at, and if you treated your Jordana poorly (as I did, and she me), it’s an emotional shoebox you may very well have hidden far, far away. But Submarine is so knowing and so evocative that it brings all of those moments back, in a flood of anxiety and regret and excitement. It’s a wonderful film.

"Submarine" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray.

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