The hero of Submarine is a precocious/pretentious 15 year-old schoolboy from Wales called Oliver (Craig Roberts), who is about to embark upon two daunting adventures. The first is win the heart of (and lose his virginity to) classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), who is as mysterious, confusing and entrancing to Oliver as all females are to boys of that age. His second mission is to repair the cracks that have appeared in his parents' marriage. Oliver tells us that they haven't had sex in seven months – he knows this because he has been keeping track of the dimmer switch level in their bedroom – and he's concerned about the possibility of his frustrated mother (Sally Hawkins) leaving his meek father (Noah Taylor) for the smooth-talking mystic next door (Paddy Considine).
Submarine's central themes of first love, adolescent awkwardness and family problems, along with its nostalgic recreation of a half-remembered past, place it in familiar cinematic territory. Many films have covered similar ground in the past, and Richard Ayoade's first feature wears its influences (from Wes Anderson and Woody Allen to the French new wave) on its sleeve, but the director manages to distinguish his film by investing this potentially clichéd material with enough wit, feeling and imagination to make it feel fresh.
The first hour in particular skips along with a thoroughly engaging sense of energy and confidence, with Ayoade displaying an assurance behind the camera that suggests a genuine cinematic sensibility. He uses his visual and editing tricks judiciously, and he plays with Oliver's constant voiceover too, with the narration musing on the fact that his life doesn't have the budget for a crane shot as the camera slowly pulls away. All of this could easily come across as mannered and self-conscious, but Ayoade gets the balance just about right, never letting the quirks overwhelm the film's characters. In fact, he finds a near-perfect match between the form and the central protagonist, with film-obsessed Oliver requested fade-outs and dissolves at awkward or painful moments, and announcing a super-8 montage of happier times. Haven't we all, at some stage, desired the ability to direct our own life story? Oliver is a ridiculously affected character – he carries a briefcase to school, reads the dictionary, has Jean-Pierre Melville posters on his wall and takes his date to The Passion of Joan of Arc – but Roberts' soulful and endearingly naïve performance quickly wins the audience's affections.
Ayoade is so sharp when tracking these growing pains, it's a shame other areas of his film don't quite feel as tight or fully realised. Despite excellent, subtle work from Hawkins and Taylor, the scenes focusing on the Tates' failing marriage are markedly less compelling than Oliver's coming-of-age story, and matters aren't helped by the fact that Considine's sleazy lothario is a caricature in a film of sensitive characterisations. The pacing drags somewhat in the final third, and for all of his keen observations of the emotional turbulence of teenage life, the film lacks any real emotional impact when all is said and done. Submarine does get so many details right, though, and the feeling it leaves as the credits roll is one of warm affection rather than disappointment. Ayoade, I'm sure, will do stronger work in the future, but this is an impressive and promising calling card.