In the movie Submarine (2010, dir. Richard Ayoade), a son’s insistence that he does have a girlfriend results in a mother questioning his authenticity, correcting her mistake with an abrupt hug. and giving him two uncertainly confident thumbs up before closing the door.
These moments of fumbling humanity are what make Submarine worth any level of emotional investment.
The story of an adolescent boy and his web of acquaintances – parents, neighbors, love interest – could be told any number of ways, but this one is constructed with care. That said, the attention to color, symmetrically framed images (any shot could be hung on a wall as a photograph), and artfully cut scenes would all mean nothing if it weren’t for the truth held in the characters.
The characters hold a cruel humor while still caring about one another (the son, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), bullies a girl for the sake of a love interest’s possible affection (named Jordana Bevin, played by Yasmin Paige), but when the girl falls in a pond he makes an immediate effort to remedy it, vainly thinking he is wise enough to help her). The main character has a sense of self-importance, and we can imagine Oliver carefully placing the camera for every shot, trying to make his life look as dramatic as possible. And yet, we do not dislike being in his head. He is us. Oliver is not a mean person, the confused mother (played by Sally Hawkins) is not cruel – they are just fumbling, trying to find their way through life without much understanding of how other people do it.
Scenes such as when Oliver visits Jordana’s emotionally distraught family for dinner are somehow not painful to watch. They are too real. They are funny because they are true. We have all been Oliver sitting at the table eating a meal without knowing what to do as the people around him fall apart. As Oliver says with an air of affected mystery, “No one can truly know what anyone thinks or feels.” Certainly. But we work through and find something beautiful all the same.