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25 July 2023

Why Richard Ayoade’s Submarine still feels fresh

Now on Netflix, the coming-of-age film encapsulates the pain of adolescence in a small town.

By Leila Moore

Coming-of-age films tread a line of high risk and high reward. They are either hailed as timeless, and subsequently discovered by successive generations (The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls). Or they quickly fade into irrelevance. (Do you remember Timothée Chalamet starring in Hot Summer Nights a mere five years ago? No, me neither.) Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s wry and stylish directorial debut, becomes a teenager in 2023 after its release 13 years ago. This month it returned to Netflix.

Adapted from the 2008 book by Joe Dunthorne, the film follows the narrator, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old who struggles to maintain the bliss of first love while his parents’ marriage rapidly disintegrates. Oliver is rarely seen without a dour expression to match his black duffel coat, as he offers intelligent yet dispassionate observations on the stifling nature of teenage life in Swansea. “I’m not sure I believe in scenery,” he says early on, a philosophy that Ayoade’s cinematography takes in its stride. The camera passively observes an expanse of ocean in the same way it does junkyards, a favourite spot of Oliver and his love interest Jordana (portrayed perfectly by Yasmin Paige), who has a slightly concerning bullying streak. 

What Oliver does believe in, though, is the importance of telling us his story, on his own terms. In no way does the film try to convince audiences that this coming of age will be familiar to everyone; the narrative is filtered through Oliver’s penchant for fantasy, signposted by an opening sequence in which he imagines how the town would react if he died. The cinematography enables these escapist impulses; when Oliver imagines his life being presented as a spy thriller, the camera zooms out just as he thinks there would probably only be the budget to film in such a clichéd manner. He imagines a music video that captures the giddiness of first love, set to Alex Turner’s “Hiding Tonight”, which the Arctic Monkeys frontman wrote for the film. Visual cartwheels such as these could seem self-satisfied but, ironically located within Oliver’s imagination, they work.

[See also: The meaning of “Taxi Driver”]

Turner’s soundtrack is integral to the film. Oliver’s father, played with an endearing listlessness by Noah Taylor, schools his son on the essential “chapters” to a first romance. He presents him with five carefully crafted mixtapes, stating that “music can make things seem a bit more real, sometimes”. But what music really does is offer the tools with which our protagonist makes things unreal – by setting grainy montages to Turner’s lilting melodies, he can more easily fictionalise his own existence in order to bear it a little better.

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Submarine was fresh in 2010 and resists feeling dated in 2023. The twee Tumblr-grunge aesthetic of the 2010s (polaroids, dark clothing, cigarettes and typewritten notes) is not something I look back on with nostalgia, but Submarine situates itself in this aesthetic without becoming subsumed by it. As its title suggests, the story is satisfyingly contained. Oliver’s cynicism and concerningly practical outlook on life (he considers killing Jordana’s dog to prepare her for the grief that the death of her ill mother will provoke) fits an adolescent search for purpose in a community that appears directionless. While Jordana’s signature red coat and boots could easily be interpreted as an uninspired emulation of Wes Anderson’s visual characterisations, in Submarine they feel neither gimmicky nor disingenuous. The average 15-year-old probably would only own one coat she enjoyed wearing.

Ayoade’s second and most recent film was released a decade ago. Since then he has forayed into children’s fiction: his story The Book That No One Wanted to Read was published in 2022. But Netflix’s acquisition of Submarine, 13 years on after its release, suggests he achieved the improbable: creating a film that young people wanted to watch then, and still do now, a generation later.

[See also: How the streaming wars are shaping culture]

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