September 15, 2011

Fluorescent Adolescence

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We all radiate color. This is just one of the puzzles fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate gets stuck on (others include mind-boggling phrases like “I am a prism” and “I am delicious”). He spends nights re-watching the New Age videos of his mother’s ex-boyfriend, the flamboyant mystic Graham Purvis. Purvis (Paddy Considine) has just moved into the house next door and Oliver (Craig Roberts) is determined to get his parents back together, by first getting rid of Graham. This is not the only secret mission Oliver gets tangled up in; he also struggles with falling in love and finding his own identity.

Based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne, Submarine is a darkly comic tale of conspiracies and disguises. Oliver navigates each day like a spy on a mission. Operating in undercover mode is Oliver’s only way of coping with life. When the film opens, Oliver deadpans, “I find that the only way to get through life is to picture myself in an entirely different setting.” He scrutinizes everything about him with wonder and terror, a quality that makes  his ever-earnest and gawky character lovable. His earnest delivery and perennially quizzical expression reinforce his social ineptness and lack of self-knowledge.

First-time director Richard Ayoade is determined to make us see Oliver grow as the film progresses. Early in the film we see Oliver and his classmates bored by their teacher who speaks grandly about self-discovery. He challenges the pupils to answer the question, “what sort of young person am I?” Oliver certainly has a long way to go. While Oliver isn’t pretentious, he has far less street cred than he thinks. He reads the dictionary and prefers his own company (which he labels “an affectation”), He confesses that he doesn’t “understand scenery.” And he falls in love. In fact, he declares that to win the affection of his classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), he must not let his principles stand in the way. Such coolly delivered and painfully honest lines make the film sparkle even in its darkest moments.

Much to everyone’s surprise Oliver wins Jordana over. What follows is a series of hilarious and beautifully cinematographed films within films — a reference to Oliver’s daydream about being followed by a documentary film crew. “Two Weeks of Lovemaking” charts the blissful golden days during which Oliver and Jordana run along the beach burning things. He almost thwarts their first sexual encounter by inviting her to his parents’ bedroom, which he decorates like the lair of a “serial killer” (in Jordana’s words).

But these freewheeling adolescent days don’t last very long. The starry eyed lovers are derailed by problems at home. Oliver’s “routine search” of his parents’ bedroom reveals that they haven’t made love for a long time. He also learns that his father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) is depressed (the subtle motif of hot lemon water is especially useful in indicating such unhappy moments). He is frustrated that his parents don’t even argue when his mother gives Graham a handjob while drunk on New Year’s Eve. But Oliver isn’t the only one spying on the sly; his mother (Sally Hawkins) monitors his every move. She thinks he is depressed, and consciously plays the role of the calm and understanding parent. At the same time, Oliver isn’t sure how much he should play the supportive boyfriend to Jordana, who is going “gooey in the middle” due to her mother’s battle with a brain tumour. For most of the film Oliver thinks he has the answer, as summed up in one of Alex Turner’s heady lines, “I’m not the kind of fool who’s going to sit and sing to you.”

How deep is your love? That’s the question the later part of the film addresses, quite inescapably. It’s hard not to feel underwater when Ayoade leaves a trail of water-related symbols throughout the film, to the tune of Alex Turner’s intoxicating soundtrack. We flounder with Oliver following his breakup with Jordana, as Oliver is pictured all at sea on his bed, in a bathtub, before a waterfall and staring at a fish tank.  Turner backs up these images impeccably with original songs that manage to be both tender and piercing.  Some especially good moments: “you look like you’ve been for breakfast at the heartbreak hotel” (Piledriver Waltz) and “tomorrow I’ll be faster/ and get what I’m chasing after/… but I’m quite alright/ hiding tonight” (“Hiding Tonight”).

By the final scene, Oliver’s fascination with the ultrasound becomes especially poignant. It’s repeated throughout the show that the sea is six miles deep. But we all live under the radar; no one knows what each one of us thinks and no one can do a thing about it. So how deep should we go into love and life? It’s no wonder Oliver confesses to feeling “shrunken” and different by the end of the show. He could take Turner’s advice: Life is like walking on water, so make sure you wear your comfortable shoes.

Original Author: Daveen Koh