Coming-of-age movies involving precocious, troublesome boys are a genre unto themselves, ranging from "Rushmore" to Truffaut's "The 400 Blows." "Submarine," a new British comedy, draws on both of those films, and many more, but retains, for better and for worse, its own distinctive tone of glum jokiness.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is the 15-year-old wiseguy who lives in the Welsh coastal city of Swansea and rarely removes his duffle coat or smirky expression. He is also the film's narrator and fabulist, imagining such situations as his own demise, complete with sobbing classmates and a candlelit vigil. In truth, Oliver is not much liked. He doesn't much care. He has a larger mission: to "save" his parents' marriage, and to lose his virginity – specifically to his stony-faced classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige).
Set back in time to the 1980s, "Submarine" is based on the acclaimed 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne and directed by Richard Ayoade, a music-video maven and TV comedian ("The IT Crowd"). It's best when it burrows inside Oliver's antic ploys, which almost never turn out the way he expects them to. (We, of course, know better.) It's not so good when Ayoade attempts, as he often does, to cajole us into Oliver's way of seeing by piling on the freeze frames and slo-mo shots. His shopworn bag of cinematic tricks only serves to remind us of how familiar, despite the change of scenery, much of this material is.
It's also a mistake, I think, to have Oliver and Jordana be so emotionally flat. No doubt Ayoade was reaching for a hipper-than-thou vibe here, but their inexpressiveness is more annoying than cool. The film only truly comes to life when Paddy Considine's Graham, a New Age guru who has the hots for Oliver's mother (Sally Hawkins), is prancing about.
Ayoade is at his most inventive, and least derivative, in a goofy mode, but "Submarine," for the most part, is not in his best range. There's a self-satisfied complacency about the movie, a forced knowingness. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)