Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Coming-of-age done with a difference, thank you, in Richard Ayoade's SUBMARINE

If you're unfamiliar with the work of Richard Ayoade as the character Moss in the hit Brit TV series The IT Crowd, you owe yourself the good time of trying a few episodes (rent the DVDs, stream it via Netflix, or watch in on IFC Channel). One of the funniest shows I've ever seen in my 60 years of TV-viewing (granted, I do much less of it these days), Ayoade's Moss is also among the most memorable of characters, one that I will not even attempt to describe. He is beyond singular. Although Ayoade (shown below) has worked mostly in TV -- acting, writing, directing -- he also made a lovely little appearance as the curator of very odd museum in one my all-time favorite bizarre comedies Bunny and the Bull (rent or stream this one, I beg you). Now here he suddenly is, having adapted (from Joe Dunthorne's novel)  and directed his very own British independent film -- SUBMARINE -- boasting a  starry cast (starry for an independent, at least) and being given a big push in the U.S. via The Weinstein Company. Further, the movie's poster notes that the film is "presented by Ben Stiller." I am not quite sure what this means, but thank you, Mr. Stiller.

For those of us wondering if the film is as falling-down funny as Ayoade can often be, it is not. There are laughs (more like chuckles rather than bellows), particularly in the beginning section, as our barely-a-hero protagonist Oliver (Craig Roberts, on poster above) imagines the outpourings of grief that will surely ensue in his classroom  -- what the hell, over the entire nation -- upon news of his demise. This is quite funny and cleverly-imagined, if a little "standard." Following this, the filmmaker settles down to his real task at hand: showing us the stirrings of maturity, along with a lot of immaturity, in this adolescent mind/body as it begin to negotiate the adult world. This involves of course sex (we won't even get near "love," unless we call it the puppy variety), a relationship, coming to terms with two parents who need their own parenting, and most of all -- oh, god -- responsibility. And just what the hell does that entail?

That starry cast I mentioned includes the always fine and remarkably versatile Noah Taylor (above, as Oliver's sad dad). Compare his performance here with that in the recent Red White & Blue. As the boy's put-upon but resilient mom is a nearly unrecognizable Sally Hawkins (below), who brings eventual grace and perspective to a character it takes us quite some time to warm up to and understand.

The downstairs neighbor, a con-man/seer who turns out to be mom's old flame, is given life by the ever-reliable Paddy Considine (below), while the pivotal role of the first "love" of Oliver's very young life is taken by a wonderful young actress named Yasmin Paige -- who has actually been around for five years now (Wondrous Oblivion and the delightful and shockingly under-seen I Could Never Be Your Woman. Check out the latter movie's cast, and you'll stick it on your must-see list immediately.).

Ms Paige's role is pivotal for a number of reasons: She's the love interest, and she's very good: A million tiny expressions roll over her face throughout, as she tries to negotiate her own life and help Oliver with his. Further, she (shown below) is the vessel into which our "little boy" pours all his hopes and dreams, and it is she who, in a very roundabout manner, leads him to understand some things about courage and responsibility.

As all this unfolds, Ayoade, as adapter and director, both shines and maybe stumbles just a bit. He never goes for the cheap stuff, but he also drags his film out a bit longer than he might. More thought might have gone into what needed (or not) to be delivered in scenes such as the one in which Oliver prepares for the big sex event, and in others that show us the problems of mom and dad. When Ms Paige and Mr Roberts share the screen, however, there's a wonderful tension building in the way that the two connect (and don't). We hang, as does Oliver, on every word, not to mention action, from this odd young lady. Ah, wasn't adolescence fun!

Ayoade also shows a nice visual sense in the credit sequence (Sharon Locke was the title designer) and in the composition, depressed color palette and odd spatial relationships throughout the film (Erik Wilson did  the cinematography). By the end, you might say that our Oliver has taken one small step for mankind but one giant step for himself. And Mr. Ayoade has taken a further step into what looks to be a long and fertile career.

Submarine (97 minutes) opens Friday, June 3, in selected cities. In New York City it's playing at the AMC Loew's Lincoln Square and the Angelika Film Center. Click here then enter your zip code, and that should start you on your way to finding playdates and theaters around the country.

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