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June 18, 2011

We’ve been seeing a lot of Chris O’Dowd recently in movies like Bridesmaids and Paul, but what has his old partner from The IT Crowd, Richard Ayoade, been up to lately?  He’s released his directorial debut with Submarine, and it’s a welcome upturn in his career.

There’s certainly no shortage in the indie film world of coming-of-age stories featuring awkward, overly cerebral, overly sensitive young men.  Last year we saw It’s Kind of a Funny Story and later this weekend I’ll be catching The Art of Getting By, but I think the best comparison is to Rushmore, as that film certainly earned a lot of acclaim for Wes Anderson, and most films in the genre since then have tried to ape it in one way or another.

And yet for all it’s critical praise, Rushmore was actually pretty conventional; it took a popular sociological viewpoint and an unusual premise, threw them together, and watched the natural result unfold in a pretty traditional manner.  And in the process Anderson completely neutered the underlying thrust of the coming-of-age story, where the initially-naïve protagonist comes into contact with a much larger world and is humbled, while we on the other side of the veil can look back with a certain distinct kind of nostalgia.  Max Fischer is so outsize that there can’t be any real pang of recognition for most of the audience.

And this is what Ayoade — as both screenwriter and director — communicates so effectively from Joe Dunthorne’s novel: the myriad insignificant little dramas of cosmic significance everyone suffers through in their mid-teens; the larger-than-life self image infused with Depth and Meaning and Importance invisible to everyone else.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is our protagonist this time around: a 15-year-old boy living in Swansea with a fantasy life infused with Shakespeare and Nietzsche and art film.  And of course he’s after a girl, Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), although initially for purely mercenary social purposes.  Further complicating matters, his parents — the vaguely neurotic Jill (Sally Hawkins) and depressive Lloyd (Noah Taylor) — are having a rough time of it, especially since Jill’s old boyfriend Graham (Paddy Considine) has moved in nearby along with his new-age video sales routine and garishly-painted van.

Oliver is only on the cusp of really understanding that other people outside himself have lives of their own — that they might pay attention to him when he doesn’t want them to, or that they might not pay attention when he craves it desperately.  Roberts wears a perpetual look of surprise and unease, as if somewhere in the back of his head it’s dawning that other people have their own independent personhood outside of his plans.  And yet it still hasn’t occurred to him that sometimes they might be more right than he is, even about himself; he notes that his mother “mistakenly” believes him to be a budding paranoid, which belief he discovered “during a routine search of her room”.

In particular, Paige does a great job of presenting Jordana as a young woman with needs and desires and concerns wholly separate from Oliver’s, even though we only ever see her through him, and he couldn’t care less about any of it beyond how it affects him.  To a lesser extent this is true of Hawkins and Taylor as well.  Objectively, Oliver is the least important thing around, and yet he’s blinded to anything else.

Ayoade’s skill doesn’t only extend to characterizations, though; he manages a truly inventive visual style.  With its strikingly spare editing it evokes the jumpiness of a teenager’s freely-associative memory and storytelling style.  It’s at its best when Oliver — as this sort of teenager is won’t to do — thinks of his life in literally cinematic terms; he envisions a camera framing up overhead as he walks away from one situation, but fears (justifiably, it seems) that the movie of his life story may only be able to afford a zoom out.

It’s really nothing that we haven’t seen before, but Ayoade puts an unexpected breath of fresh air into a very old story.  Watching it we laugh, but — and more importantly — we remember and wince, not entirely unhappily, at the times we too were that silly and self-absorbed.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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