Occasionally it can be quite charming when filmmakers choose to wear their influences on their sleeves; in the case of Submarine, it's more like that kid who wanders in from the cold after wiping his nose on his arm all day. So insistent is writer/director Richard Ayoade on aping his idols that his debut feature may as well have been titled "Harold Napoleon Fischer." Self-consciously quirky to a fault, this hyper-derivative adaptation of the novel by Joe Dunthorne does deliver the occasional laugh, but its primary comic target is so obvious, and its pervasive idiosyncrasies so forced, that we're constantly being reminded of other films when we should be bonding with the characters in this one.
Bullied at school and miserable at home, precocious Welsh 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) plots to lose his virginity to icy Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) before his next birthday, and to prevent his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), from having an affair when his morose father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), loses the will to fight for his marriage. After accomplishing his first goal, Oliver realizes that his second task will be an even bigger challenge than he anticipated. Meanwhile, an unexpected complication in Jordana's family throws the self-centered misfit for a loop, causing him to withdraw emotionally as he spies on his mother and her spiky-haired suitor -- a former sweetheart and current spiritual guru named Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) -- as their relationship appears to grow ever more suspicious.
Make no mistake, there's genuine talent involved in Submarine. Despite his seeming reluctance to claim his own voice as a director, Ayoade does manage to elicit memorable performances from the majority of his stars -- Hawkins, in particular, is a standout as the frustrated, self-help-addicted housewife who longs for the carefree days when she dreamt of becoming an actress -- and he certainly has a talent for capturing those small, quiet moments that say the most about a character. That's quite an accomplishment considering most of the characters in Submarine are mere two-dimensional caricatures best experienced in small doses.
Likewise, many of the best jokes in Submarine are handled with a nonchalance that shows a real sense of comic confidence. And while many of the stylistic flourishes in the film lack inspiration, Ayoade does take a few risks that genuinely payoff -- the most obvious of which occurs during a bout of bullying that spirals out of control early in the film. Though we've seen the frozen-in-time moment in countless other films, its use as a turning point in Oliver's relationship with Jordana ensures that it serves a real purpose, rather than simply looking cool.
Despite the filmmaker's penchant for focusing on style over substance, however, it would be unfair to claim that Submarine lacks heart. There are moments in the film that reflect the confusion, desperation, and conflicting egocentricity and insecurity of adolescence with an authenticity that truly speaks to the writer/director's connection to the source material. Whether it's Oliver's defiant response to a homophobic bully who dares to target Jordana, or Jill's and Lloyd's flummoxed reactions to learning that their socially awkward progeny has managed to get a girlfriend, these are the moments that prove Submarine is more than a hastily assembled pastiche. But then, just as quickly as Ayoade starts to transcend his influences, he succumbs to them again. It's a vicious cycle that repeatedly sends Submarine into a nosedive when it should be breaching instead.