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Young idiots not the least bit in love, not in the slightest

dir: Richard Ayoade

Coming of age stories are a laugh, aren’t they? Whether it’s some spotty git fucking an apple pie, or four friends searching for a dead body, coming of age stories are almost always nostalgic and poignant, because they’re watched by people far removed from the actual age. Throw in some period detail, some tunes from an earlier, ‘better’ time, and it’s like crack to oldies of a certain oldness.

The problem or virtue of Submarine is that it’s set in the 80s, which no decent person should be nostalgic for, including and especially those of us who came of age in the 80s, and also it’s a flick in love with coming of age flicks. There’s plenty of references to other classic boyish coming-of-age flicks (400 Blows, Harold and Maude, The Graduate, bunches of others), but this has its own unique take on the Bildungsroman.

That doesn’t make it good, necessarily. The reason I went out of my way to see this flick is because of the almost surreally positive reviews it has garnered, even down to local Potato Head Pomeranz and Old Farmer Stratton giving it stratospheric approval. And it was lauded and praised to the heavens around the world long before it came to Australian shores to die a quiet death at the box office.

I don’t really see it. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m not as interested in coming of age stories any more. The appeal of Submarine pretty much escaped me.

I was wondering why I wasn’t liking it even as I was watching it. The film is, though low budget, very well made, exceedingly well directed by Richard Ayoade, who plays the nerdier part of the duo in the comedy The IT Crowd. But I couldn’t really love it, much as I wanted to.

I think the main problem for me is that I didn’t really feel like I was watching the youthful indiscretions of an intelligent and well-meaning but immature young chap. I felt like I was watching the origins of some kind of sociopath.

A lot of the stuff our main Welsh character does fall somewhere on the spectrum of either being sociopathic behaviour or the actions of someone on the actual autism spectrum with no inkling as to the feelings and emotions of other people. And then he does stuff that’s equally stupid or messy, and it seems like the stuff a confused kid would do. Mostly, his performance just left me feeling disturbed. He seemed like someone who could come up with some fairly psychotic justifications for some fairly harmful behaviour. He is intelligent enough to think up elaborate explanations as to what might be going on in other people’s minds, and even more elaborate plans for how to alter what people are feeling or doing, but his understanding seems to lack basic human empathy. Still, he’s a teenage boy, so what more do we expect?

And, if I didn’t have enough problems with the character, almost everyone speaks with a Welsh accent. There’s a reason why most films don’t have people speaking in Welsh accents, you leak-eating rugby players.

Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to insult the Welsh or their sympathisers.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is that intense, possibly smelly kind of chap of which there was always at least one in your class or school. He is unpopular, intelligent and definitely not in step with the kids around him. He is, like all teenage boys in these kinds of stories, determined to lose his virginity at any cost in order to become a man. Of course, like none of us realised at the time, you lose your virginity and the world remains unchanged, with you still in it. The only difference is that now your feelings of shame and inadequacy have magnified a hundredfold.

For Oliver, though, it’s not as easy as finding a girl with low self-esteem or a drunk girl, or some combination thereof. He has a plan. And a target.

Jordana (Yasmin Paige) is a sly girl with a black helmet bob who, unlike most of the girls at least initially in these kinds of stories, is on no pedestal that I could discern. Oliver rightly fathoms that she’s nice enough, but she’s particularly turned on by acts of mild cruelty. Thus he contrives to enter her good graces (and other parts) by manipulating a situation into showing his capacity for such.

And it works! At least enough to get Jordana’s attention. They don’t meet cute. They don’t fall in love to the tune of a montage. Though they do become connected in some ways, ways that Oliver never really bothered to consider the implications of.

Though Jordana is not some fantasy idealised version of a girl, his knowledge of other people, let alone girls, is miniscule. It’s all theoretical, at this stage. He’s well read, of course, but try applying the lessons you learn from reading Catcher in the Rye or Anna Karenina to real life and real women when you’re a callow fifteen-year-old boy.

She, on the other hand, doesn’t seem oblivious to the possibility that Oliver may be a complete fuckwit, but then at school they’re both surrounded by complete fuckwits. The act that wins her over involves her machinations in trying to wring jealousy from a former boyfriend through some contrived pictures of her and Oliver kissing, which is so impressively put together and composed, and yet deliberately undercut at the same time. She has her spiteful motivations, and Oliver’s voice over relates the mechanical, numbing effect the continual kissing has on his mouth.

Spoken like a true autistic chap. The photos she takes during that scene lead to a confrontation with the prick in question, who humiliates Oliver in front of the whole school, smacking him around and trying to compel him to say out loud that Jordana is a massive slut in front of the leering, jeering school.

Seems a bit unfair, a bit inaccurate, at the very least. I mean, if anything, she was a very petite slut, at most, that’s all you could reasonably say.

Does Oliver’s stoicism in the face of this beating earn Jordana’s affection? Do beatings in general turn Jordana on? Who knows, women at any age are impressed by a bewildering array of strange things. Sometimes it’s cock size, sometimes it’s the size of your mortgage, sometimes it’s the words ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across your knuckles, and sometimes it’s the ability to take their mockery and contempt without ever walking away. Or, at least, so some less confident, more immature male friends of mine tell me *cough*.

Whatever it is, Oliver weasels his way into her life, and spends time planning the next stage of his plan, which is to weasel his way into her pants.

It’s as awkward and hilarious as you would expect, since Oliver’s got no fucking idea, but that’s just a point in the film, not the destination as it would be in other, dumber coming of age flicks. The far messier and more complicated stuff comes afterwards, as he realises that Jordana is a person with emotions and feelings and family and stuff, which disgusts and disturbs Oliver no end. Hearing the ruminations in his head as he thinks of ways to ‘help’ Jordana by potentially poisoning her pet dog in order to help her to deal with the potential grief of losing her mother convinced me like nothing else that he wasn’t emotionally or psychologically all there.

The film splits the time Oliver obsesses over Jordana equally with his obsession to do with his parents, their individual well-being, and the health of their relationship. Like any disturbed, hyper-aware teenage boy, he judges the health of their relationship based on whether his parents are getting quality time between the sheets. I’m not a psychiatrist, so I’m probably not qualified to judge just how wrong it is for a teenager to be so focussed on his parents fucking. Fuck that: It’s totally creepy, but, like most of the issues to do with his parents, it’s kind of played for laughs.

Noah Taylor plays Oliver’s father, and Sally Hawkins plays his mother, both with such stiffness and lack of affect that it almost seems like a parody. The father battles with depression, and with being supernaturally boring. The mother looks for something elsewhere, some semblance of life and activity that she’s not getting at home. It doesn’t help that the guy she lost her virginity to (Paddy Considine) has just moved next door, mullet and all. That chap, being some kind of abysmal new age guru, brings a whole level new level of cringeworthiness to the proceedings, especially when Oliver becomes convinced that his mother is having an affair with him. Just think of the hot sex between a mullet-headed ninja, and a dowdy woman in a twin set and pearls!

Oliver struggles with trying to fix things with his parents, all the while either contriving to avoid the emotional messiness involved with being involved with another human being, or make things worse because of the terrible reasons he thinks up. There are always reasons for the stuff he does, they’re just not good reasons. Of course he fucks everything up, what fifteen-year-old wouldn’t, whether it’s the 1980s or the 2010s? For the audience, the question is whether you sympathise with as he goes his merry way, or whether you’re repelled by the whole fucking lot.

This is a rich, fulsome, lived-in flick, with characters and costumes and music and such and whole bunch of stuff going on, amounting to… I’m not sure what. The point of all coming of age flicks is that some came of age. That probably happened here, with an ending we’re supposed to see as a positive one, a hopeful one. I don’t think it has to amount to much more. Jordana is vibrant and alive, and strange but well acted. It just felt like the main character, whose eyes we watch and experience the flick through is just too… something. I’m not sure why I couldn’t wrap my head around him. I don’t know if he was just too Aspergers-y. I don’t know if he was a borderline sociopath. I don’t know if he’s perhaps offending me on a subconscious level because he reminds me shamefully of my own callow youth, and my own appalling actions in the realms of love and lust at an early age. Painful, terrible memories that shouldn’t be recalled, for any reason. Damn you, Submarine, for reminding me.

I don’t know, and I don’t know if I want to know. Still, none of that is enough for me to dismiss the flick entirely, because it really is well made, and feels passionately put together by people who really ‘got’ the story, and very much wanted to tell it as well as they could.

In that spirit, this flick is a good one, but not an easy one. It’ll take some patience, I think, and maybe some compassion as well, probably more than I extended towards Oliver and his wicked, wicked ways.

7 ways in which Wales is a strange place that looks like part of our world, but possibly isn’t out of 10

“Her mouth tasted of sour milk, Polo mints and Dunhill International” - Submarine