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Submarine (15) and Ballast (15)

Only one of these debut directors has found his voice.

The precociously intelligent fantasists' club for pale young men does not exactly want for members. But now the likes of William Fisher (aka Billy Liar), Adrian Mole, Mick Travis (If...), Max Fischer (Rushmore) and Nick Twisp (Youth in Revolt) will have to make room for Oliver Tate, the 15-year-old hero of the new British comedy Submarine. Oliver (Craig Roberts) is both wallflower and pop-eyed oddball; swaddled in a dark blue duffel coat to ward off the Swansea chill, he's like a Muppet trying to look inconspicuous.

Inside his head, however, he is the star of the coolest movie ever made. Whether imagining himself to be in a documentary "about a prominent thinker who has suffered an unspeakable loss" or hypothesising about how the people of Wales will mourn his death, he is in that self-mythologising state known as adolescence. The comedy arises from the disparity between his idea of himself and the dopey reality.

He's hyper-alert, yet unable to see that there's something dysfunctional in the phrase "I was conducting a routine search of my parents' bedroom..." He has control of the narration, but the camera is able to contradict visually his deluded claims.

Submarine has the feel of three shorts grafted together. The initial part focuses on Oliver's attempt to woo Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a girl
who sneers at the world from inside her coat of deepest Don't Look Now red. The picture's retro-cheesy look obeys the law of production design in period comedy, which dictates that the past is another country and the haircuts are much funnier there. Oliver's dinner to impress Jordana (prawn cocktail for starter, wine from a box) suggests that we are in the 1970s. A trip by his parents to see "Crocodile" Dundee places us in the late 1980s. Phrases such as "shopping mall" and "It's all good" indicate a voice not entirely consistent with the decade.

A problem, once the snappy first third has elapsed, is that we still have another hour to wait before Oliver arrives at the same realisation about himself that we twigged in the opening minutes. The actor-turned-director Richard Ayoade, who wrote the screenplay from Joe Dunthorne's novel, has assembled a lively cast, including Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as Oliver's parents, and Paddy Considine as a spiritual life coach with a mullet that deserves its own spin-off movie. But they can't quite compensate for the suspicion that there isn't enough material here for a full-length feature film.

Ayoade has done inventive work directing music promos and TV comedy. In Submarine, his first film, his judgement isn't always sound. The tone keeps lapsing into tweeness; it is tell­ing that while Oliver contemplates poisoning Jordana's dog, he doesn't go through with the plan as he does in the book. And Ayoade has made the rum decision to commission songs by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, possibly because of his resemblance to the film's lead actor, but more likely as a homage to the musical commentaries in The Graduate (by Simon and Garfunkel) and Harold and Maude (by Cat Stevens). With Oliver's ceaseless chatter, the last thing Submarine needs is a verbose lyricist putting in his two penn'orth.
Lance Hammer's Ballast finally arrives in the UK more than two years after its US release. Possibly the weight of all its awards delayed its passage across the Atlantic, baggage restrictions being what they are these days. Hammer is another first-time film-maker, but his debut couldn't be more different. As stripped of music and pizzazz as Ayoade's movie is drenched in them, and with emotional haymakers delivered as regularly as the gags in Submarine, it is, I suppose, no less of a crowd-pleaser; it's just a different crowd that is being pleased. But it isn't the picture's austerity that makes it such a potent work, it's the impression that Hammer has pruned ruthlessly anything that doesn't serve the film.

The opening shot, in which a boy bolts towards a murder of crows, sending them cawing into the sky, establishes the film's geographical setting (the Mississippi Delta) as well as emotional one. We follow three members of the same African-American family as they are buffeted around this landscape: 12-year-old James (JimMyron Ross), whose estranged father has committed suicide; the dead man's twin, Lawrence (Micheal J Smith), destroyed by grief; and James's mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), who is in danger of losing her child to a gang of teenage crack dealers. That threat is brought sharply into focus in a scene that dispels the morbid romanticism that can easily attach itself to a well-shot film about desperate lives.
It's interesting that Hammer gives James, Lawrence and Marlee no need or desire to flee their lot. The death of Lawrence's brother brings not poverty, but choices about how to carve up the family properties and settle old grudges; the suffering here is emotional, not financial. Kent Sparling's sound design makes us subtly aware of traffic whooshing past on unseen highways, while occasional shots of freight trains or James whizzing along on his motorbike remind us that another America is within reach. As viewers, we may see this stubbly land, with its battered trailers and impermanent clapboard houses, and ask why the characters don't leave, but the question never arises. It's their home.

The film doesn't allow any respite from the misery of the characters, who are stalked by the hand-held camera. Why, you wonder, does Hammer keep positioning the camera on the back seat of a car, as if lending us the perspective of an unseen passenger? What seems like an
affectation suddenly makes sense in the last shot, providing an instant lesson in how to create meaning through camera movement.

In Submarine, Ayoade exhibits technical command and an extensive library of references. He's an accomplished ventriloquist. In Ballast, Hammer has something much more precious - his own voice. l

Submarine (15)
dir: Richard Ayoade
Ballast (15)
dir: Lance Hammer

Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday here.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world