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Submarine: An Adolescent Heart Ensnared in a Freudian Love Triangle

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Given what I consider a steady trailing off in the quality of films by Texas’ favorite indie star, director Wes Anderson, the filmmaker’s legacy is increasingly related to the influence his unique sense of tone has had on developing the artistic voices of many of the filmmakers who have followed in his shadow.

Case in point, Richard Ayoade’s new film Submarine, a movie that, from the moment the Helvetica titles crowd the full screen of the young British director’s movie — Truffaut via Harold and Maude via an indie album cover — you can sniff the residue of Anderson’s trailblazing. It is amusing to think that there was a time when studio hacks bickered back and forth about the comedic tone of Bottle Rocket, wondering if there was an audience for the director’s then-new sense of offbeat, oddball comedy. Now it is its own genre.

To call SubmarineRushmore set in Britain” would be both accurate and unfair. Sure, the film centers around a hyper-articulate adolescent living in a world that is simultaneously realist and buffo and whose ambitions lay squarely in realizing pop song romance and textbook-distilled heroism (with a vinyl-ready soundtrack to boot). But Ayoade ultimately proves that he is about more than style and has a feel for his characters that may grow full-throated in later films.

Craig Roberts is Oliver Tate, a shy-ish, introverted 15-year-old who has his romantic eyes — and intellect — locked squarely on Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a plain-ish beauty who occupies roughly the same level of the social stratosphere as himself: moderately accepted, slightly edgy, precocious in ways that will blossom into full-blown coolness come sophomore year of college.

There are some scenes early on that are textbook Anderson. Oliver overanalyzes his pursuit of his very pursuable woman, manipulating his projected self-image, taunting the classmate who falls on precisely the rightly unfortunate rung of the social scene, and meticulously documenting his efforts. He drops fake notes, and there is even a Polaroid kissing scene. If Ayoade doesn’t shoot the next Arcade Fire video, we wonder, who will?

But from there Ayoade begins to blaze his own trail. Oliver finds himself caught within the crossfire of conflicting adolescent desires: a stable family life and a love life of his own. The former begins to unravel when his mother (the always impressive Sally Hawkins) seems to be falling for her ex-boyfriend, new neighbor, and hippy new age preacher, Graham (Paddy Considine). Oliver tries to boost the morale and libido of his cuckold dad Lloyd (Noah Taylor), but the monotone, depressive marine biologist (a cross between Bill Murray’s Zissou and Murray’s Herman Blume without, well, the Bill Murray), is nearly unresponsive. It is up to Oliver to sabotage adulterous love, while he tries to micro-manage his own relationship.

Despite all these Anderson comparisons, Submarine also pulls liberally from Anderson’s own cinematic mentor, Harold and Maude, recreating a version of that film’s boy-older woman love story with an Oedipal twist. Oliver is obsessively involved in his parents’ relationship, and while he professes his desire to preserve familial normality, his familiarity with the romantic and sexual nuances of his parent’s love life pushes him from counselor to voyeur.

Ayoade nearly convinces us that adolescence is a kind of voyeuristic purgatory. As a character, Oliver captures that peculiar in between of the awakened intellect trapped in the impotent, fearful manners of a child. And this is ultimately the delicate balance that fascinates: that the mind can begin to strive for noble action while the gut still finds itself slouching towards the comfort of the mother’s breast. Submarine manages to dress up its insights into this state of life like its main character: smart and full of good humor, looking simultaneously individual and buttoned-up by mum.

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