The world of Wales is underrepresented on film. Submarine does much to remedy that. Not since mid-nineties joyriding comedy ‘Twin Town’ introduced an unsuspecting world to the glorious Rhys Ifans (Spike from ‘Notting Hill’), have we really been immersed in the bizarre, mystical world of the Welsh valleys.
Elegaic rites of passage movies, on the other hand, are two a penny. 'Dazed and confused', ‘Garden State’, 'Dangerous lives of the Altar Boys', the entire back catalogue of ‘The Wonder Years’, of which this is highly reminiscent. The Celtic world amply represented by Jared Leto's 'Last of the High Kings'.
So what does this movie have to offer that is new or original? Well, it's funnier than most for one. Lloyd Tate, the prematurely middle-aged, neurotic schoolboy protagonist is a jaw-droppingly geeky, naive and gormless wonder. You can’t help but be entertained by his Rushmore-esque, obliviously self-obsessed narration. And the leftfield grotesquery of the portraits of his parents, neighbours and friends is so unusual, surreal and disarmingly vivid we are quickly drawn in. We've seen it all before but it is done with great charm and wit, combined with the totally off the hook, basket case lunacy of village Wales. This movie is like the bastard child of Wes Anderson and the ‘League of Gentlemen’; the crushing domesticity and adult hypocrisy is detailed with awesome hilarity.
But when it tries to get serious, it runs into problems, overtaxing our investment in the characters’ lives and becoming overlong and tedious. We like these characters but not enough to follow them into melodrama and sentiment. It needs to stay funny, but the laughs stop about two-thirds of the way through.
When Lloyd’s dream girlfriend-turned-social liability Jordana’s Mum gets cancer, the film attempts to segway into real drama but doesn’t quite make it, fetching up only as narcissistically maudlin. Worse still, it doesn't really know how to end. Nice acoustic music and seaside montages aren’t a satisfying climax. It's poetic but we need more story. Much of side two degenerates into an extended indie music vid, all duffel coats and fringes. It’s like being in a Smiths album cover.
And in general Submarine does feel kind of old-fashioned. Of course it’s set in the eighties, but this film feels like it was made, not set in them, unlike for instance the wonderfully angsty ‘Adventureland’. Postwar consensus, middle class teenage ennui movies seem a bit passé these days. Where they're current they usually involve some element of amoral satire (‘Youth in ‘Revolt’ - average), stick to outright comedy (‘Gentlemen Broncos’ - amazing) or bring in a new, postmodern spin (‘It's kind of a funny story’ - intriguing.)
It feels like a rites-of-passage movie these days has to have more in its arsenal than just boy meets girl, boy is too shy to talk to girl, boy endlessly emotes and moons about over girl.
The Open University instructional interludes are a welcome audiovisual trip, and the performances are great, the leads pretty exceptional. Submarine is charming and funny with enough nods to Wales’ mystical, wizard past to bring some quirky darkness. But too uneventful in the second half, and it doesn’t have an ending. Worth a look.
By Mienheer Peppercorn