Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a bright, morose 15-year-old in Swansea, Wales, subscribes to the misfit-genius belief of many teenagers: he thinks everyone is watching him and nobody understands him. So in the moments between getting bullied at school and deflecting his parents' somewhat academic interest in his precarious emotions, Oliver finds solace in imagining the public reaction to his sudden death. TV reporters would be solemnly covering the candlelight vigils, panning across the gates strewn with commemorative garlands, interviewing the sobbing females the whole Princess Diana panoply. And then: the resurrection. One night at school, a mysterious figure in a Harry Potter cloak would reveal himself as Oliver to a few of his awed acolytes (all girls). "Don't ask how," he'd whisper. "Just know that I'm more powerful than ever."
In Submarine, Richard Ayoade's ingratiating adaptation of Joe Dunthorne's 2008 novel, Oliver is not so much a teen as Everyteen every teen, that is, who will grow up to write a novel about his aggrieved adolescence. Self-consciousness comes with the territory; self-awareness comes later. Submarine's neat trick is to show both states simultaneously. The movie lives inside Oliver's roiling soul while finding the human comedy in his desperation. From either aspect, it's a cagey delight, and an imposing feature directorial debut for one of Britain's TV stalwarts.
Whether or not Ayoade, who'll be 34 this month, endured Oliver's ordeals as a 15-year-old, he soon flourished. Born of a Nigerian father and a Norwegian mother, he read law at Cambridge and served as president of the famed Footlights Dramatic Club. (The Daily Show's John Oliver was vice president.) He's best known to Brit TV watchers as Maurice Moss, the brilliantly maladroit techie on The IT Crowd. Ayoade has directed music videos for Arctic Monkeys, whose album titles (Favorite Worst Nightmare and Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not) could serve as slogans for Oliver, and whose front man, Alex Turner, composed the plaintive songs that run through Oliver's head.
The kid has trouble at school and at home. In class, while the boy sitting behind him responds to a teacher's challenge to define self-discovery by saying, "Havin' a wank, sir?", Oliver pines for the vixenish Jordana (Yasmin Paige), whose young mind holds thousands of years of womanly guile and taunt. Jordana will let him creep into her affections in part for sport, in part to assuage her depression over her mother's brain tumor. Things aren't much jollier chez Tate, where Oliver's father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) measure their lives in prim chat parenthesized by tense stretches of silence. Oliver, who keeps tabs on their arid relationship by making "a routine search of my parents' bedroom," is concerned that the two haven't made love in months and that Jill has rekindled an old flame in the egregious person of Graham (Paddy Considine), a former pop singer and current "mystic Ninja," who's moved in across the way. (The movie is not nearly so grim as this précis.)
Before he can suture a family crisis, Oliver must attend to his own urgent education. Assuming that his personality will be the sum of his affectations, he tries smoking a pipe, "listening to French crooners" and scanning the dictionary for obscure words that speak to his condition. (Today's entry: flagitious shamefully wicked.) He tries the same tactic on Jordana, hoping for a communion of souls by taking her to the silent French film The Passion of Joan of Arc on their first date and giving her copies of Nietzsche and The Catcher in the Rye, as if this were the last day of school and he a stern teacher with a summer reading list.