Here is a rare thing: a British comedy debut that’s surprising, witty, hugely accomplished and fully capable of finding an audience worldwide. Richard Ayoade, previously best known for his TV roles in The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh, directs his own adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel with confidence and style, suggesting a glowing film career lies ahead. It’s no incidental detail that Submarine is presented in association with Red Hour Films, Ben Stiller’s production company.
In a nameless Welsh village, at an unspecified moment of the late 20th century, we meet Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old schoolboy with a briefcase and a tendency to be ridiculed by his peers. But in his mind – the perspective Ayoade most often presents to us – Oliver is a supremely intelligent outsider, the ultra-cool star in the film of his own life. Oliver has his sights set on two goals; to lose his virginity before he turns 16, hopefully with his gorgeously aloof classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and to save his parents’ marriage after he sees his mum (Sally Hawkins) chatting up their neighbour, new-age motivational speaker Graham (Paddy Considine).
There’s a similarity to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore in the precisely crafted way that Ayoade shoots Oliver’s life, as well as his eye for comic details, but the film has a style of its own that keeps it from feeling like an imitation. Tonally, Ayoade treads a fine balance between poignant emotion and detached comedy, and his young leads serve him well in this regard. Paige is particularly good, equally convincing as the cool object of Oliver’s fantasy and the emotionally complicated, real girl he gets to know. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack, a surprisingly tender set of new songs by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner.
General release, Fri 18 Mar. This review first published in The List magazine.