Whether it's Sundance or Toronto, every year both festivals seems to produce one crowd pleasing hit that appears completely out of the blue. It may not have a distributor or may be just too under the radar because of lack of starpower, but there's always a film that you just want all your friends and colleagues to see once it finds a home. This year, that picture is "Submarine."
Based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, "Submarine" centers on Oliver Tate (an impressive Craig Roberts), a teenage boy in Wales who falls for an emotionally detached girl, Jordana (Yasmin Page), all while trying to stop his mother (Sally Hawkins in picture stealing mode) from having an affair with her old high school boyfriend (a bizarre Paddy Considine). The film marks the feature debut of commercial and British TV director and screenwriter Richard Ayoade who provides an original voice to the bluntly comic, but oh so dark proceedings.
Oliver is different from many teenage movie heroes because his social skills are so awkward that at times he comes across as cold-hearted kid, but is clearly a sensitive soul trying to navigate through his high school years with detective like precision. While Oliver narrates a good chunk of the film, Dunthorne is smart to use the motif judiciously allowing the story to unfold in as real time as possible. It's that voice over which provides many of the films initial laughs as Dunthorne introduces a world that could be set in the '80s or any decade since (although computers and cell phones are intentionally non-existent). That lack of specific period is assisted by the fact Oliver has a point of view that feels very 21st century in how drolly self aware he is of both his own mistakes and of those around him.
One of the biggest surprises in the movie is how prominent Oliver's parents, Hawkins and Noah Taylor, are in the overall storyline. Both actors are playing considerably older characters than their real ages and Hawkins in particular is hilarious as Oliver's mother Jill who might just have a wild streak underneath her prim and proper exterior. When both parents admit to Oliver that his mother went on a "date" her old flame, how she reveals how he evening consummated is shocking enough to make even John Waters' smile. And like that specific moment, "Submarine" is constantly taking a turn here or there that pushes the picture in a direction you just aren't expecting. Especially for what would be initially categorized as a "coming of age" picture.
Some will lazily refer to "Submarine" as a British "Rushmore," but that's a bit unfair. This tale is much less pretentious than Wes Anderson's breakthrough from over a decade ago. This movie is much more about a teenage romance and Oliver is clearly more likable and obviously geeky than Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer. Visually inventive, it has a look that at times seems inspired by Rian Johnson's "Brick," but that might be more of a coincidence than anything intentional on Dunthorne's part.
What hinders "Submarine" from being an obvious pickup for an American distributor is the lack of any sort of recognizable stars to sell to U.S. audiences. Obviously, Hawkins and Taylor are far from household names and it doesn't help that similarly strong British comedies such as Danny Boyle's "Millions" or "Son of Rambo" were major disappointments at the specialty box office. Perhaps this pundit is too optimistic, but "Submarine" feels as though it has a much better shot at creating buzz among the twenty and thirtysomething set to break that dubious losing streak. Here's hoping a company with some smart marketing folks (cough, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics), see the possibilities with the comedy and acquire it for U.S. release (Plus, Ben Stiller is an executive producer and willing to pimp it out to the press! How can they say no to that?). Once that occurs (keep your fingers crossed), it should become a must see for any serious movie fan out there.
[Update Sept. 15, 12:00 EST: Deadline is reporting that The Weinstein Company has acquired the comedy for $1 million and a substantial P&A commitment. My guess is the comedy will hit theaters sometime this winter or spring, but in 2011.]
The producers of "Submarine" have made three clips from the picture available to HitFix. Granted, these aren't necessarily the snippets we'd have pulled, but they will give you a good sense of the style and humor of the picture.