The precocious lead in Submarine, adapted by actor-writer-director Richard Ayoade from Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 coming-of-age novel, sees the high-wire drama and dark comedy of his adolescence in largely cinematic terms. As played by Craig Roberts, his Technicolor imagination transforms the dingy raw material of his tumultuous teen years into dazzling French New Wave fantasies in which he plays the romantic hero. He’s a man out of time, a moon-faced, hyper-verbal dreamer in the finest Rushmore tradition.
Submarine traces Roberts’ rocky evolution from innocence and naïveté to hard-won wisdom as he romances Yasmin Paige, a tough, troubled, attractive, but maddeningly enigmatic girl. Roberts finds Paige’s sexuality seductive as well as terrifying. She ushers him into the complicated world of adult sexuality in a way that plays havoc with his fragile psyche. Meanwhile, at home, Roberts suspects his mother (Sally Hawkins) has begun an adulterous affair with a motivational speaker, played by a scene-stealing Paddy Considine. As a teenager, Roberts is at the mercy of forces beyond his control. He’s powerless before the callousness and selfishness of the adults around him, but in the cinema in his mind, he can craft the narrative of his life however he sees fit.
The surface wackiness of Considine’s mullet-sporting, van-driving narcissist alone might threaten the film’s delicate, bittersweet tone, but Considine plays the role for drama rather than comedy, as a pompous but ultimately real human being rather than a glib, misanthropic caricature. Submarine is the film Youth In Revolt should have been, an achingly sad yet ribald account of a hyper-verbal oddball’s ascent/descent into manhood. Ayoade’s astonishingly assured directorial debut, which owes a debt to both Wes Anderson and J.D. Salinger, chronicles the emotional terrain and heartbreaking emotional intensity of adolescence with uncommon grace, humor, and understated power. It’s easy to imagine Submarine rocking the world of its own movie-mad protagonist; there’s a beautiful symmetry in a novel about a movie lover being transformed into an exquisitely literary, novelistic film.