Thursday, May 5, 2011

SIFF — Submarine

I made it to another SIFF press preview screening today. Unfortunately, I had only enough time to catch one of today's three films. Fortunately it was Richard Ayoade's Submarine, which hit me in all good ways. It also turned me on to Ayoade, an English comedian, actor, and writer (best known for his role in The IT Crowd) making an assured feature debut as a director.

I arrived early, as the buzz on this U.K. indie comedy has been strong since the Weinstein Co. won the bidding war for U.S. rights at the 2010 Toronto festival. Good thing I did — by the time the doors opened the line wallpapered three sides of the multiplex lobby. Late last year the British trailer did its job to impress the film into my cortex, so I've been curious/hopeful about Submarine despite knowing little about it. Apparently I had plenty of company.

SIFF wait lines are great. There, the phrase "Everyone's a critic" isn't necessarily a complaint. Those around me who had just seen Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller's documentary Something Ventured gave it sterling reviews, their cross-talk placing enough little verbal "thumbs up" or "☆☆☆1/2" in the air that I was sorry to have missed it. And SIFF audiences being SIFF audiences, I chuckled inwardly at the self-reinforcing stereotype of the matronly woman who struck up a conversation with me by beginning her first sentence with "One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons is the one..."

Press blurb:
Based on the successful debut novel by Joe Dunthorne, Submarine is the hilarious coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Oliver Tate. Oliver has two summer objectives: to lose his virginity to pyromaniac bully Jordana before he turns 16, and to put an end to his mother's renewed flame for her ex-lover.
Submarine opened in the U.K. in March, and is slated for a June 3 release in the U.S.

Richard Ayoade
Submarine won me over in its opening minutes by evoking Wes Anderson's charcoal gray comic dramas of humanized idiosyncrasies. I wish I could be the first to call Submarine a Welsh Rushmore, but now that I'm sitting here on the couch glancing through reviews of it, I notice that the Wes Anderson vibe is evidently a common response. As a neurosis comedy, it's easy to spot Woody Allen's influence on director Ayoade (restricting the parameters to Allen's late-'70s-early-'80s peak years when Ayoade was but a crawler and toddler). Wisely, Ayoade isn't coy about his film's hat-tips to previous benchmarks in the Disaffected Teen Male genre such as The 400 Blows and The Graduate, both of which are quoted outright. A comparison to Harold and Maude is only so-so tenable, although if Ayoade didn't conjure Bud Cort's Harold as a spirit guide when shaping the look and manner of Craig Roberts' self-absorbed and "moderately unpopular" Tate, I don't know what.

"Coming-of-age" is a genre as freighted with hoary conventions as Las Vegas in May. Yet, the film's visible external influences notwithstanding, Ayoade kept Submarine fresh and authentic through his confident, inventive eye behind the camera plus an adroit feel for rhythm and tone; a wry, clever, layered screenplay (by Ayoade, adapting Joe Dunthorne's 2008 novel) that deftly pitches deadpan humor with the right proportion of subdermal melancholy; and strong performances across the board.

I'll venture that it's a career-maker for young Craig Roberts, fully committed in his first film. ("Unless things get better, the biopic of my life will only have the budget for a zoom out.") TV veteran Yasmine Paige finds Jordana's interesting fulcrum points between a hardcore anti-romantic fire-starter and a girl desiring connection as she undergoes her own growing-up challenges. Oliver's sadsack dad Lloyd, a marine biologist, comes delivered well by Noah Taylor (Almost Famous, The Life Aquatic).

I want to call out Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Never Let Me Go), whose choices as Oliver's fluttery, awkwardly concerned mother — tempted by her first love, a kitschy New Age guru and "hippy-looking twonk" with a rock-star-wannabe mullet (Paddy Considine) — prove the value of coiled-spring restraint. Oliver's newfound romance, in all its freshness and naiveté and discovery, kindles within his mum a yearning for that feeling again, which obviously vanished long ago from her marriage to dull, depressive Lloyd. It's not a coincidence that she behaves like a restless teenager at the same time her own restless teenager is experiencing the full flush of First Love. I'd be curious to hear Hawkins discuss her process and choices in crafting the character. No matter what, she's pretty terrific in the role.

This is a twonk.

You're going to see "quirky" attached to this film a lot. Ignore it. It's not just that the word is such an overused catch-all that it's edging out "sardonic" in the Overused Catch-all elimination rounds on Fox's So You Think You Can Be a Movie Critic. The film does deliver a certain sharp edge and the sorts of sly narrative and character turns you'll never find in a, say, Jennifer Aniston rom-com. But it refuses to pile on the quirks like a KFC Famous Bowl™ or substitute easy eccentricities and look-at-me irony that places its well-honed characters and everything they say or do in quotations marks. 

If I felt obligated to quibble, I'd mention that I sensed a little sag in the middle third, and Ayoade stacks up the thematic markers of water and submersion (hence the title) so often that my inner peanut gallery started muttering, "Yes, I get it already."

Quibbles, schmibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed Submarine. In fact, it put me in such a good headspace that I didn't mind (much) having to miss the next film on the day's schedule — the Swiss/Spanish The Most Important Thing in Life Is Not Being Dead — because I didn't want to risk losing the high. 

Today was the final day for the press preview screenings. SIFF proper begins on the 19th. Between now and then I need to get my viewing schedule charted out, starting with recommendations from friends and the big PDF file I received minutes ago listing the favorite films of several SIFF programmers.

Christ, that's a lot of movies.


Near at hand: Brass ex-Soviet compass