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At first glance, “Submarine” looks like a film in the school of Noah Baumbach and (especially) Wes Anderson, but looks can be deceiving.  Because while director Richard Ayoade uses the same tools as Anderson et al – precocious prep school kid, overly stylized/formalized sets & costumes, etc. – he’s using them for different purposes.  The wonder of Anderson’s films is how such unbelievable characters can actually become real over the course of the film; they reveal hearts, they grow warm even while remaining stiff, and they feel like people we know after two hours with them.  Odd people for sure, but we love them because of their oddities.

That’s not what Ayaode’s up to.  The characters in “Submarine” remain frustratingly opaque, never revealing their true intentions or motivations, rarely emerging from the shells they have built to keep the world out.  And this isn’t bad writing; it appears to be the very purpose of the film.  Protagonist Craig Roberts lives in a world of inscrutable people; he can’t figure out what anyone wants or needs, least of all himself.  In contrast to that is the horrifying ability these people – again, including himself – have to cause each other harm and injury.  In “Submarine,” everyone runs around in terribly ineffective suits of armor.

Roberts has a crush on Yasmin Paige, that blossoms into a relationship – his first girlfriend.  Except that she’s only going through the motions (even the most intimate motions) and doesn’t seem all that into him.  Or is she?   She’s hard to read.  Everyone is.  Meanwhile, his mother’s old flame(Paddy Considine) has moved in next door, and he can’t understand why his father isn’t more upset about the growing warmth – and maybe more – between his mom and this other guy.  Or is he upset?  He’s also hard to read.

“Submarine” is about people who have locked their emotions so deeply away that even when they go to look for them, they’re not sure where to look.  There’s a great scene where Roberts breaks into Considine’s house, intending to do something really terrible and outrageous to his father’s competitor — but can’t think of what to do.  And then when he does thing of something, can barely bring himself to do it physically.  He’s trying so hard to act out of control, but it’s foreign territory for him.   Control has been his bulwark; schemes and plans determine how he acts.  It’s not that he’s unemotional – he’s a raging sea on the inside – it’s that he doesn’t have any idea how to simply let his emotions determine his actions.

This is Richard Ayoade’s first film, and one hopes for many more similar to it.  He’s earned the right to be mentioned alongside Wes Anderson, who I consider one of the best, most interesting filmmakers working.   Yet his film has its own distinct tang – Anderson’s characters warm up and we love them; Ayoade’s stay cold and we love them just the same.  It’s quite a feat for a first time director.  And this is quite a film.


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