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Overlooked: Submarine

The intensity of adolescence — and the fantasy we escape into when we lose control
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AMIE LEUNG/THE VARSITY
AMIE LEUNG/THE VARSITY

Set in the sleepy seaside town of Swansea, Wales, Submarine is a coming-of-age tale that premiered a decade ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). 

It’s about the 15-year-old schoolboy Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) attempting to navigate his newly-minted relationship with Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) while salvaging his parents’ marriage that’s dissolving — in part due to a psychic New Age neighbour. 

Oliver generously narrates the film with prose and precision, while Alex Turner’s soundtrack functions as a one-man Greek chorus, presenting wistful musical commentary over sweeping views of the coastal terrain. 

The first time Submarine entered my life, I was 15 and, like all anxious high schoolers, desperate to be understood. I was thankful to detect myself not only in Oliver’s pretentious nature but also in his tendency to catastrophize and overreact to mundane, inconsequential problems. 

Finally, I rejoiced: a film that articulates how momentous teenage feelings, however minuscule, can be! I felt a distinct kinship with this shaggy-haired Welsh boy who referenced cinematic clichés and touchstones to communicate his sensibilities and seized every opportunity to romanticize his aggressively ordinary life.

Throughout Submarine, director Richard Ayoade indulges in Oliver’s fantasy of being the protagonist in a self-directed film. When Oliver’s detachment from reality results in nonchalant daydreaming about reactions to his death during class, he conjures a sequence featuring students performing televised eulogies, a nationwide candle-lit vigil, and the flood of grief experienced by the entirety of Wales. 

Yes, Oliver is a narcissist, but his motivation to retreat into imagination likely emerges from the desire to escape into a realm where he maintains control. In cinema, there is the illusion of security, possibility, and comfort that all will be right before the credits roll.

What I admire most, however, is the film’s respect and recognition toward feelings frequently explored in the coming-of-age genre. Oliver, at times, narrates self-aware directions: “Sometimes I wish there was a film crew following my every move. I imagine the camera craning up as I walk away, but unless things improve, the biopic of my life will only have the budget for a zoom out.” Ayoade then follows by swiftly executing these instructions, graciously entertaining Oliver’s fantasy. 

By adopting a stylized mode of storytelling that reflects Oliver’s interiority, Ayoade accepts the idea that these feelings are indeed cinematic and that Oliver and all angst-ridden youths are worthy of sympathy, attention, and the silver screen treatment. These emotions are immense, and Submarine skillfully and delicately renders them so.

Since the film’s premiere at TIFF in 2010, Submarine has garnered considerable attention for an independent debut feature: it was picked up for distribution by The Weinstein Company, screened at major film festivals, and eventually found an audience in fans of the coming-of-age genre. 

On Letterboxd, a social networking site centred around film discussion, Submarine was appropriately included in a list titled “The Cinephile Teen Starter Pack” amongst titles such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). 

Though Submarine has yet to ascend to cult status like its peers have, the film continues to stand tall in the broader coming-of-age landscape thanks to Ayoade’s gift for capturing the fantasy and intensity of adolescence.

Even if the misery of being young, anxious, and confused has passed, Submarine is still worth revisiting on its tenth anniversary — if not for the rose-tinted memories painted by nostalgia, then for the visual references the cinephile filmmaker subtly places in his film, ranging from title cards evocative of the French New Wave, to the Persona (1966) and Don’t Look Now (1973) tributes, and even a blackmail scene influenced by Le Samouraï (1967). 

It is a delight to watch Ayoade’s love for the medium, which reflects in how the film, as a whole, is a love letter to cinema.