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Film review: SUBMARINE from Built for Speed

Clever and inventive as it is, Welsh comedy Submarine is oddly familiar, often playing like a darker cinematic version of the TV show The In Betweeners.  Like that show, it features a bullied schoolboy nerd (Oliver) played by (Craig Roberts) trying to cope with annoying idiot mates and his attraction to a more worldly and generally nasty female classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige).  A subplot also sees him trying to save his oddball parents’ (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) marriage.

There’s plenty to like about this film: It’s visually inventive with striking and surreal depictions of the imaginative Oliver’s day-dream world, which at one time includes a reference to Nic Roeg’s Don’t look now.  Also, the vivid, atmospheric cinematography makes the film’s welsh industrial setting strangely appealing.  In addition, there’s an evocative musical score and soulful Smiths-influenced songs by The Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner. The songs’ prominence on the soundtrack combined with the film’s visual style and 80’s setting often makes it seem like we are watching a really good music video from an 80’s British alternative band.

As a film that purports to be a comedy and one directed by a comedian (The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade), however, it’s not that funny. This is not for want of trying, it piles on the quirky observations but few of them are genuinely hilarious.  The script and its characters are smart, though, with Oliver a suspiciously well-read teen a bit like a 16 year old Woody Allen.  It also has some of the otherworldly quality of Napoleon Dynamite – one character, a ridiculous new age psychic neighbour (Paddy Considine) – could have come straight from that film. Unfortunately, Submarine doesn’t quite have the comic touch of its influences and sometimes leaves the audience cold with its self-conscious cleverness.

I suspect the filmmakers were deliberately trying to subvert the expectations of romantic comedies by making the characters difficult and even unlikeable.  While this might seem a novel approach, it tends to backfire here as Oliver is often a selfish little prat and difficult to sympathise with.  Also, despite him being the centre of the film and despite his numerous Trainspotting style confessional voice-overs, we still feel distanced from him and this diminishes the film’s humour and its drama.

The positives in Submarine outweigh the negatives, though and with its smart, ballsy script, terrific visuals and clever examination of teen angst this is destined for cult status.

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