“I’ve tried smoking a pipe, flipping coins,listening exclusively to French crooners,” informs the narrator of writer-director Richard Ayoade’s debut, Submarine. “I even had a brief hat phase, but nothing stuck.” The narrator is Oliver Tate, a precocious, self-conscious, gloomy 15-year-old from Wales who never stops narrating. “I’m not sure I believe in scenery,” he says, apropos of nothing except his fantasy that he’s in “a documentary about a prominent thinker who’s struggled with unspeakable loss.” In other words, the narrator is annoying.
And if you take an instant dislike to this kid—whose “charm” is so forced and unrelenting it’s nearly impossible not to—the film itself doesn’t have much hope. A coming-of-age tale in the deadpan vein of the superior Rushmore, Submarine was adapted by British comedian Ayoade from a novel, and follows two storylines. One is Oliver’s romance with Jordana (Yasmin Paige, the most memorable presence here), a scowling girl with bobbed hair and a fondness for “light arson” and moderate bullying. The second involves Oliver’s meddling in his parents’ marriage. His father (Noah Taylor) is a depressed academic who spends a lot of time in his bathrobe. His mother (Sally Hawkins) is basically, well, Sally Hawkins as June Cleaver. Both are soft-spoken and seem to take barely a passing interest in their son’s shenanigans, except for his mother’s reported belief that Oliver suffers from mental illness, which he encourages by saying textbook-psycho things.
But that doesn’t mean Oliver isn’t highly involved in their business, going so far as to monitor their sex life via daily checks of the dimmer switch in their bedroom. When mum’s ex-boyfriend (Paddy Considine), a mulletted mystic and motivational speaker, starts hanging around a little too often, Oliver makes it his mission to ensure she doesn’t cheat on dad. And so he spies, tries to spur his father to action, and even forges a letter (on his retro typewriter, of course) in which his father talks a little dirty in an attempt to get that dimmer switch to half-mast again. It’s so fucking charming.
More tolerable—if only by a smidge—is Oliver’s relationship with Jordana. The film’s only sweet sequence has Oliver picturing their courtship as a Super 8 movie, a grainy montage of the two running around on the beach, riding bikes, and doing whatever else young people in love do. It’s pretty much the only time Jordana really smiles, preferring to glower at her beau as she singes his leg hair or he makes a case for them to have sex. (Predictably, the night they schedule said intercourse is dryly wacky.) We find out, though, that Jordana has a reason to be depressed, a circumstance that Oliver makes even more miserable by his uncharacteristically cowardly behavior.
Submarine ends on a cheerful if indie-dictated open-ended note, which would certainly please Oliver’s cinema-obsessed side. “Sometimes I wish a big film crew was following my every move,” he meta-sighs at one point. You’ll wish that one hadn’t.
Louder Than a Bomb Directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Way less irritating than Oliver are the kidswho spout poetry in Louder Than a Bomb, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s debut documentary that follows four Chigago students from different schools competing in an annual high-school slam contest. Except for one kid, their stories are rather typical of high-schoolers from the wrong side of the track: broken homes, drug-addicted parents, bad behavior, growing up too fast. Poetry-as-savior may be eye-rolling. Their talent, however, is not.
Meet our protagonists: Lamar is a 19-year-old about whom we learn the least, except that he once did some things he regrets and helped lead his school, Steinmetz Academic Centre, to a slam championship the year before Louder Than a Bomb takes place, even though they “looked like we didn’t belong.” Nate is a self-described nerd whose strong vocabulary used to get him bullied, and whose single mom was an addict. Nova was shuttled between her mother and her irresponsible dad when she was a preteen, at least until she got sick of being a “wife and mother” to her father and decided to never go back. She admits she was once a very angry kid, even after she discovered her love of writing: When told that, despite her ability, she’d likely not make the slam team back when she was a freshman, she had a few colorful words for the coach. And Adam, who goes to a prep school, admits that he’s “always had opportunity, I always had privilege.” Indeed, his parents are genial and ridiculously supportive, even when his father jokes that there’s a “tremendous market” for slam poets.
Louder Than a Bomb introduces other members of these students’ teams as it shows their preparation leading up to the competition. Without fail, their devotion to the spoken word is astounding; one of the more painstaking writers justifies his obsession by telling his coach that “every line should be a jewel.” At one point, Steinmetz’s coach gives his team a talking-to, ready to kick out a few members who “disrespected him” by mouthing off the day before. Their apologies are sincere and pleading, and one even ends in tears. And these are the tough kids.
Ultimately, the slam is the thing. The competition is a pleasure to witness. Forget the navel-gazing, nihilistic faux-etry of your adolescence—these kids rhyme forcefully about topics like school shootings, caring for an ill relative, being Jewish. One four-person recitation of a poem called “Counting Graves” that muses on the drive-by murder of a child is tear-inducing. All are terrifically delivered, even when there’s a minor slip-up. That the audience erupts with applause after every reading may seem excessive, but these performers earn it.