Imagine if David Fincher had played Joey on Friends. Or if Michel Gondry had replaced Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. It's one thing for a music-video director to graduate to feature filmmaking (from Fincher to Spike Jonze, there's a rich history of that) or for a sitcom star to do the same (Ron Howard leads a less storied fraternity). But Richard Ayoade has somehow emerged from both the laugh tracks and three-camera setups of television comedy and the posturings of indie-rock videos with cred still intact — and flourishing. In recent years, Ayoade has starred as socially awkward computer geek Maurice Moss on the U.K. comedy hit The IT Crowd, directed videos for Vampire Weekend and Arctic Monkeys, and now arrives stateside with his first feature, Submarine, a highly stylized teen dramedy that has elicited lofty — if all too inevitable — comparisons to coming-of-age classics like Catcher in the Rye.
By nature and intent, films that work within a discernible genre traffic in the familiar. Noirs, action films, romantic comedies — each has a set of tropes that serve as a baseline for new iterations to follow or subvert. But Oliver Tate, the 15-year-old Welsh protagonist of Submarine, is so versed in the demands of the coming-of-age narrative that he's trying to fulfill and transcend them as he goes. He even has a mix of sad songs cued up for when first love inevitably sours. "He's so desperate to not be someone who doesn't realize he's a cliché," Ayoade says during a recent visit to New York City. "And that in itself is a cliché." That paradox of self-awareness is something Submarine, adapted by Ayoade from Joe Dunthorne's 2008 novel, itself archly exploits, unabashedly referencing the celebrated likes of Rushmore and The Graduate while angling for a sensibility — and attendant cool-kid cult — of its own.
Following in a long tradition of adolescent protagonists, and reflecting Dunthorne's literary strategy, Oliver (Craig Roberts) narrates his own tale of domestic disillusionments and schoolyard loves lost and found. "What's interesting to me about voiceover in film, that can't exist in a book," Ayoade says, "is that you can have a simultaneous effect of what someone's saying directly juxtaposed with the reality." Which gets at the heart of what the 33-year-old, shroom-cloud-fro'd writer-director is up to with Submarine. Oliver's self-awareness can take him only so far, and that cinematic juxtaposition lets us see what he can't, revealing the actual effects of his behavior on everyone from his melancholic parents (brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) to his increasingly impatient, Anna Karina-coiffed girlfriend, Jordana (newcomer Yasmin Paige).
Ayoade mines that gap between subjective and objective experience for teenaged pathos and understated humor. The comedy here is a much trickier business than what he has attempted in the past. "In television, generally at the end of most jokes, you cut to someone reacting," he says — but easy punchlines wouldn't work in the world of Submarine, where characters are unfailingly, if often hilariously, earnest. Outside of a perhaps too colorful turn by Paddy Considine as a mulleted New Age guru, Ayoade summons laughs without undermining his characters' dignity. For Hawkins, who plays Oliver's uptight, deeply unhappy mother, Jill, the objective was to always play it straight. "My job was to make her as believable to me as possible," she says by phone. "I knew it was highly stylized because it was through Oliver's eyes — which I found fascinating — but if you're thinking, 'This is hilarious,' then inevitably you'll be mucking up the scene."
In presenting the tale of Submarine through Oliver's p.o.v., Ayoade strove to locate the film's conspicuous cultural quotations within the frame of reference of a precocious, French New Wave-literate teen—not necessarily his own. "The idea was that this is how Oliver would like it," he says. "So in a sense, it didn't particularly feel like a film that's in my style." Courtesy of the hero's fully mediated perspective, every aside is dutifully illustrated via an arsenal of visual tricks, from mock instructional demos to semiserious romantic montages. Which makes the comparisons to the likes of Wes Anderson both entirely fair and a bit facile. "I understand in the writing about something, initially it's very much about placing it. 'What's this in the lineage of?' But hopefully you can get around that," Ayoade says. "Most things that exist now are in dialogue with things from the past, and that's what's enjoyable. Like watching the Beatles try to be Elvis. I mean, you couldn't get out of the way of Elvis. In the same way, with coming-of-age films, you can't get out of the way of The Graduate."
Instead, Ayoade seems to embrace his influences, confident that the filter of his own sensibility can yield something worthy of its pedigree. Encountering the right film — or record, or book — at the right age, can help show us who we are, even if that encounter is widely shared. "For me, it was liking The Catcher in the Rye so much that I wanted to remain in that world," he says. "You go through it to be understood, and to understand others as well.
"There's something so compelling about that age," he continues. "With someone struggling not simply with the emotions of things but with the linguistic arsenal to describe them." Though Submarine's language may indeed be tailored to reflect Oliver's sensibility, at least one reference seems to come straight from Richard Ayoade: When Oliver truly falls for Jordana, he ceremoniously hands her a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. "Salinger's very influential," he says. A cliché, but true.