Looking through the window on a rainy day is the feeling that evokes overall the movie Submarine (2010) by Richard Ayoade, however, the film is far from being sad, rather it is a soulful comedy that submerge us into a romantic world viewed through the glass of depression, melancholy and nostalgia, whilst showing the submarine is an allegory for one’s self and that just as we can submerge in depression and conflict, we can also emerge in the beauty of our situations. It tells us the story of Oliver Tate, a 15 year old boy who struggles to gain popularity at school whilst trying to conquer Jordana Bevan’s heart, his schoolmate. After some attempts to impress her, she becomes his girlfriend and, just when the relationship grows more intimate, Oliver gets in the middle of a relationship crisis between his parents. Without being able to open with Jordana about this, because she is also going through a difficult time at home, he faces his problems alone whilst trying to be the perfect boyfriend for Jordana. The voyage of the submarine goes, as the film is depicted, through different stages from Oliver’s loneliness to his relationship with Jordana, the influence of his parents and finally his recollection of experiences and the revelation of what is important for him to keep in order to land in the place he wants to be.
Most people think of themselves as individuals, that there’s no one on the planet like them. This thought motivates them to get out of bed, eat food, and walk around like nothing’s wrong. My name is Oliver Tate
This is the first line of the movie, which prepare us for a journey of self discovery and questions about others. In the first scene of the film Oliver is depicted as a lonely, serious and reflective young boy, looking up through the window, sitting on the floor. In this image he looks small, compared to the rest of the things that surround him, everything in his room seems to be above him. He spends his time trying to find who he is:
I don’t quite know what I am yet, I’ve tried smoking a pipe, flipping coins, listening exclusively to French crooners. Other times I go to the beach and stare at the sea. Someone made a documentary about a prominent thinker, who struggled with unspeakable loss. I’ve even had a brief hat phase. But nothing stuck.
His strolls along the beach are just by himself and most of the time these images show only Oliver’s back, which could be interpreted as his introverted character, his alienation or lack of identification with the rest of the world. The feeling of loneliness is reinforced by the places where he wanders, for they seem to be in an industrial part of the town, the light is more greyish and the weather is cold and dry –they are always using big warming coats– which makes stronger the melancholic character of Oliver’s condition.
Besides his activities of self-discovery he also spies on his parents and tries to monitor their activities to confirm if things are going well between them or not:
My parents have not had sex in seven months, I’ve been monitoring their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they’ve been at it because next morning the dial will be set to halfway.
By doing this he is trying to know about himself and about his parents, he behaves as an investigator, a researcher. At school, his friends are bullies who invite him to join them in their pranks. Jordana, the girl he admires, is somehow amused by this behaviour so he joins them to impress her, despite his education and his awareness of doing wrong, for he tells himself: ‘I must not let my principles stand in the way of progress, I must be willing to adapt.’
He is testing himself, how far can he go to achieve what he wants? Jordana is a dark-humoured kind of girl, who tricks him into kissing her to take pictures of them and make his ex-boyfriend jealous, but the plan goes wrong and Oliver has to defend her. The strangeness of Jordana’s behaviour suits very well with Oliver’s character, in fact the figure of this girl is distinguished among others because she is always wearing a red coat. There is a perfection of match within their personal imperfections, Oliver is attentive, melancholic, pleasing, sometimes even shy and he rarely smiles; Jordana seems to be eccentric, witty, demanding, sassy, suffers from skin eczema –later on it is revealed that she is allergic to dogs– and ‘moderately unpopular, which makes a romance between us (them) more likely.’
Relationships are another stage for getting to know ourselves, since we go through situations in which we respond to or according to the other’s behaviour and sometimes do things that we did not know we could or would do. The first meeting with Jordana sets the strangeness that continues throughout the relationship. They meet below a railway and Oliver is carrying a Polaroid camera and a small diary by Jordana’s request. At his arrival, she demands him to give her the camera and to kneel down, kisses him whilst taking pictures of them and asks him to write down the date and mean things about her ex-boyfriend. She means to make the latter jealous but the plan backfires and Oliver is put in a situation where he has to humiliate himself and Jordana. His test is, would he have the courage to step up for the girl he likes? he does and gets beaten, the reward is worth it though, after he defends her, she kisses him and when Oliver asks about the relationship:
Oliver: When there, I asked if she was my girlfriend now. And she said
Jordana: I’ll think about it
Oliver: But what she meant was, yes
Oliver knows they ‘are now as one’. With this relationship Oliver is able to know a new side of himself, the boy that likes to run through the empty spaces burning things, or that bares his girlfriend burning the hair of his legs, even the romantic Oliver who wants to record this moments in ‘the Super 8 footage of memory’. Their relationship resembles the sweetness of the first love, the fun of sharing your time with someone, of not being lonely in your weirdness, to be accepted and perhaps even admired.
Now its time for introducing Jordana Bevan. They grow very fond of each other quickly, after a fortnight of lovemaking Oliver decides that is time to invite her to ‘come round and have sex’. Jordana didn’t agreed with the romantic cliché and, when she arrives at Oliver’s it is exactly what she finds so tries to runaway, Oliver realises his overlooking and looks to the situation as a learning experience: ‘I’m sorry for that. I didn’t know whether you’d like it, but we can learn from it. I’ve learned from it’. He is now in the pathway of getting to know each other, just about to face the difficulties of knowing the other and to push the boundaries of what you know about yourself. After that night their relationship becomes more intimate and he insists in building stronger interest between them:
Oliver: ‘I thought it’d be nice to get some mutual interest, now that we’ve had sex, other than spitting and setting things on fire
Jordana: Why would I want to be more like you?’
The discoveries he makes as a result of opening to Jordana, lead him into difficult situations of support and understanding towards her, for Jordana reveals everything else that she is, all the things that are left backstage when we meet someone superficially: our families, needs, fears and flaws. Knowing all those things and getting to be known by others puts us in vulnerable situations that we can enjoy when things are going well or that we have to handle if things get complicated. Jordana has come now to that vulnerable place whilst Oliver seem to be confused of how to manage the situation. The funny moments, the weird exciting adventures seem to be over and, even though Oliver is still in love with Jordana, his own fears, and what’s going on in his family, make everything more complicated for him.
Communication is important in any kind of relationship, but Oliver is not keen about talking of sensible things with his parents, his espionage on their affairs is what keeps him up to date with what happens at home and gives him an idea of who his parents are, although it cannot give him the power to solve things they ought to be fixing between them. Through Oliver’s discoveries, we know that his father, Lloyd, suffers from depression –his antidepressants are in his nightstand– and that from time to time he might get worse. According to the former, his mother, Jill, is a neurotic with a frustrated career who is worried that he might have mental problems. The relationship between his parents is somehow dry, but things get worse when Jill’s first love, moves in to the next door, Oliver fears that his mom might cheat on his dad and increases his surveillance. The next quest for Oliver is to get to know his parents, he wants to develop key situations that can fix their relationship. Unfortunately, this is not for him to fix, the movie shows that relationships are complicated and that a way of knowing each other, is not only by being aware of things but also being interested in those things and, as Oliver was trying to do with Jordana, sharing and communicating to one another. While Jill is engaged in remembering who she was and looking at how she is now, Lloyd seems to be detached from everything else, immerse in his own situation, after all ‘passion rarely lasts’ is one of the things that he says to Oliver. While watching TV, Jill asks Lloyd:
Jill: Do you like my hair long?
Jill: Or short like now?
Lloyd: Well, you know… I like your hair no matter how long it is
Jill: But did you prefer it long?
Lloyd: Either way is good
Jill: No opinion
Lloyd: So it’s up to you
Jill: So it wouldn’t bother you if I shaved it all off?
Lloyd: No, if it made you happy
Whether Lloyd’s answer is because he is open to his wife wishes or genuine indifference, it is a negative sign in the relationship. Jill thinks that ‘Lloyd is far too self-involved to feel threatened’ by his neighbour and perhaps by any situation that happens around his marriage. Oliver can actually imagine ‘my Mum calmly leaving one day while Dad helps her pack.’Lloyd’s situation is not easier than Jill’s, he spends his time at home, and agrees to everything that Jill’s suggests or does, even when something is not agreeable for him he still goes for it, as light and openminded this might seem, he is still concealing what happens within. His alienation has many angles, he is a marine biologist who finds it difficult even to explain what he does, he is a very intelligent man, but lacks the skills to relate with other people, and even with his son, the way he talks could be more like from teacher to student than from father to son. Oliver gets the opportunity to know more about him, by talking to him:
Oliver: Do you often feel like this?
Lloyd: Like what? Tired?
Oliver: Down in the dumps
Lloyd: Quite often
Oliver: How long for?
Lloyd: Since I was about your age, I suppose
Oliver: How does it feel?
Lloyd: Like being underwater
Oliver: Is that why you became a marine biologist?
Lloyd: Maybe, yeah
Oliver: Have you always liked fish?
Lloyd: I suppose so. I just sort of drifted into it, really. No pun intended
Oliver: And does Mum mind?
Lloyd: I think she’d rather I earnt more money
Oliver: No, you being underwater
Lloyd: Oh, yeah, no. I’m sure she rather I wasn’t. It’s not very pleasant
Oliver: The ocean is six miles deep, isn’t?
We may think that he bares a deep depression for the emphasis the film gives to the fact that he knows ‘how deep the ocean is.’ In this scene, we can see both Oliver and his dad sitting and having dinner on the table, while a big fishpond is above them. They are underwater.
Throughout the movie there are moments that resemble some of these, like being a submarine or underwater, the relation between this and the role of the individual is explained when Oliver reads an article in the encyclopedia:
Tonight, I stumbled across an Encyclopaedia entry on ultrasound. Ultrasound is a sound vibration too high frequency to be audible. It was first developed to locate submerged objects: submarines, depth charges, Atlantis and such. Some animals, like bats, dolphins and dogs can hear within the ultrasonic frequency. But no human can. No-one can truly know what anyone thinks or feels. What’s inside Mum? What’s inside Dad? What’s inside Jordana? We’re all traveling under radar, undetected, and no-one can do a thing about it.
Then, just as the submarine submerges and emerges, the human as an individual can go through those phases, and it is part of our paths of self-discovery to decide if we remain underwater or emerge into a better situation. Like I mentioned before, there is a big fishpond in the kitchen of Oliver’s house, at times, the three sit down to eat and seem to be below water. Evidently Lloyd is underwater since he mentions it however, Oliver also goes through that phase. Whilst struggling with his family’s situation, his relationship with Jordana deteriorates and he doesn’t support her when she needs it the most. Afterwards, Jordana gets another boyfriend and Oliver sees them together. Later he is depicted in his room, laying on his bed, when suddenly everything starts to submerge in water. Oliver’s depression for his relationship is recognisable.
As there is a time to be underwater, there is also a time to float again in the surface, and both Lloyd and Oliver are able to do it. Going through difficult times also teach us part of who we are, what is important to us and how to recover and keep our journey, perhaps even working on those things we love. For Lloyd things get better with Jill when she confesses that she got drunk and gave a ‘handjob’ to Graham, the neighbour, they decide to work things out and do not touch that subject again. When they talk about it with Oliver, both parents seem much recovered in comparison with their last condition. Oliver asks his dad if he is not upset about it and Lloyd replies ‘worse things have happened at sea’, later Oliver enters their room while they are in ‘ a romantic moment’, they have emerged. Oliver keeps looking for ways to fix things with Jordana, he knows this will matter when he be older, so it is very important to him to get things better. At the end of the film Oliver sees Jordana on the beach and runs toward her, he claims to have made a mistake and shows his interest to be with her when she walks a few steps into the sea and he follows her. They both stand in front of the horizon, looking above the sea.
This romantic comedy shows individuals as submarines, neither what we are is detectable in other’s radar nor we can detect what is within people around us. The adventure of discovering who we are and what we want also involve having relationships with other people, because it is in them that we can mirror our situations, and learn from them. Whilst opening to other people, it is possible to learn how to receive and acknowledge what they have to offer us and become aware of what is important to us. Oliver goes through different stages of self discovery with his relationship with Jordana and with his parents’ situation. He learned to push his limits into the way of progress, to identify what things he wanted to give importance to and to fight for the people he loved. The ability that we have of submerging into problems but also emerging from them gives to our lives a positive outlook of what it is to know ourselves and others. In my point of view, the story of this 15 year old boy does not show any more difficulties that what a normal teenage has to go through in adolescence, and yet it shows how deep and important matter it is to know ourselves and to be open to live life the way we want it, reminding us at the same time that the journey continues through our adult life. For me it is a hopeful message for the life well lived.