Movie Review: ‘Submarine’ torpedoed by cliches

Dana Barbuto

Overdosing on metaphors and the trappings of indie filmmaking, “Submarine” takes coming-of-age tropes to new depths as it tells the quirky but familiar tale of how 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, “Jane Eyre”) tries to lose his virginity and save his parents’ (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor) crumbling marriage.

On one level, Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is a teen romance that doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves; and that alone makes it worth seeing, despite a script that overdoses on eccentricity.

On another level, it’s a grown-up look at what happens to a marriage that isn’t nurtured and, to a lesser extent, how children mimic their parents in love and life.

Everything revolves around Oliver. And in the capable hands of Roberts, who’s in every scene, Oliver proves a likable young Welsh lad whose journey from innocence lost to experience gained unfolds over one fateful year.

He’s the type of kid who reads the dictionary, daydreams about how people would react to his death and monitors his parents’ level of sexual activity by how bright the dimmer switch is in their bedroom. But he’s also deeply self-absorbed, almost to the point where he’s too layered to keep the character believable.

Thematically, “Submarine” –– based on the Joe Dunthorne book –– touches upon self-discovery, depression and deception, with the Holy Grail of sex lurking in the background. But Ayoade’s script relies too much on telling instead of showing, as Oliver advances much of the narrative via voiceovers. It’s a rookie mistake, especially with a cast of this caliber.

Ayoade, a popular British actor who gained directing cred from helming music videos for Vampire Weekend and the Arctic Monkeys, divides the film into three chapters –– after a tongue-in-cheek-prologue in which he thanks the United States for not invading Wales.

Part 1 focuses on the object of Oliver’s affections: Jordana Bevan, an eczema-inflicted pyromaniac classmate, who while in the capable hands of Yasmin Paige is a dead ringer for eccentric indie film queen Zooey Deschanel. Quirky, huh?

Part 2 turns the focus toward Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), the New-Age psychic residing next door to Oliver.

Part 3, subtitled “Showdown,” brings the slow-moving flick to its resolution.

Hawkins, an Oscar nominee for “Happy-Go-Lucky,” injects a dose of gravitas as Oliver’s neurotic mother, Jill, who worries that her son has emotional problems. Dad, played by a manic Taylor (“Shine”), is a marine biologist depressed over losing a TV gig, a setback that exacerbates his chronic neurosis of feeling submerged (another water metaphor).

Impressionable Oliver drinks all this in and gets a taste of Dad’s sullenness when he has his first dance with heartbreak. Meanwhile, Jill finds an escape from her marital ennui in Graham, whose skin-tight leather pants are topped off with a prodigious spiked mullet. Turns out the psychic is Jill’s first love, and tension soon develops as romantic sparks rekindle.

How a kid handles his parent’s possible infidelity is a movie on its own. And this one seems to have a firm, comic grasp on how to tell it. The wheels fall off, however, as Ayoade throws in Oliver’s girlfriend, who has a sick mother. It feels like an afterthought, and when Jordana starts to become needy, an out-of-character trait for the rebel she’s painted to be, Oliver retreats.

After a promising start and well-drawn characters, “Submarine” ends up waterlogged by its own desire to be different, when it really isn’t nearly as fresh as Ayoade thinks.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at

SUBMARINE(R for language and some sexual content.) Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins. 2.5 stars out of 4.