Indie films just ain't what they used to be. It was somewhere around the mid-1990s when the novelty began wearing off for me. This coincided with, although to no big surprise, the years that my drug intake started to wane considerably. Maybe every hipster of that age simultaneously got a little tired and bored of maintaining an edge when everything and everyone seemed to be coopted by the mainstream in order to break it all down into easily marketable chunks for the consumption of the pig people. Even the fringe dwellers' work was repeating itself and becoming stale and derivative. Shit, Reese Witherspoon began appearing in what many considered to be "offbeat" films. The dream had died. Sundance had been overtaken by the money changers and what once was a festival for aspiring filmmaking talent and its ragtag audience of Gen-Xers and cinephiles had devolved, like so much else of the society, into a huckster's cheap gimmick. The relentless machine-- pounding us 24/7 with crap we need to buy (or films we're supposed to like) in order to stave off their threat that we just plain suck, smell bad, drive the wrong car, and nobody wants to fuck us.
One of my favorite jokes of the period regarding this downswing of creativity went something like this:
Q: How many lesbians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Six. One to screw in the bulb, three to sit around and discuss how phallic it is, and two more to make a documentary of it.
And watch many a lesbian film I did in those dark years, Dear Readers. And a host of other nonsense patched together by nearly anybody that could afford a video camera and had an "in" in Hollywood.
But let us not curse the demons of our past. Let us look upon a film that I recently viewed which gave a glimmer of hope for the future of smart, independent, non-rote cinema. Sadly, you have to look to Wales to find it, but it's worth your time. After all, they gave us Tom Jones, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, and Roald Dahl, didn't they?
This specific little gem is called Submarine and it's not so much the coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old Welsh boy as it is a cynical (and slyly comical) glance at how much it sucks to be fifteen no matter where you grow up. Add that our hero, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), is a bit of an egotistical outsider and ever-so-slightly sociopathic and you have a delightful tale for the ages. I don't think I've ever seen a film that reminds me so much of Harold and Maude without it ever trying to be. Yes, it's about teen angst, death, confused sexuality, and parental detachment but, thematically, it lays claim to its own space. Think Rushmore meets The Young Poisoner's Handbook and you're getting close.
Oliver is prone to daydreaming. He's not quite a nerd or outcast at school, but his prospects for a girlfriend are limited. He begins to take notice of a similarly semi-popular girl named Jordana (Yasmin Page) and finagles his way into her sights through various calculating methods. Their infatuation blossoms disturbingly (she's a pyro, he's an undersexed enabler) and the romance is not of the candy/flowers ilk. She frowns upon any sort of sentimentality. He begins to enjoy this (he's a bit of an emotional ghost himself) as it makes his path to sex that much easier.
If the story was just about this twisted connection it would be enough. Yet director/screenwriter Richard Ayoade (from Joe Dunthorne's novel) also layers in two subplots about the kids' parents—one involving depression and infidelity (Oliver's family) and the other about cancer and loss (Jordana's folks). It never dips into mawkishness (the characters are too quirky for that) but does provide some weight to the otherwise glib proceedings. Ayoade's eye is so good and his camera work so imaginative and energetic, it would be difficult for the film to seem bogged down anyway. It's a very impressive debut from the first-time director.
The performances by Roberts and Page are spot on. His delightful wryness is matched by her sly casualness. The key is in the many unlikable traits they both possess. They are not altogether good people. Neither is particularly attractive. They are physically awkward. There is cruelty, selfishness, betrayal, and insensitivity in their actions-- sometimes goaded on by the other. They behave stupidly. Act irrationally. In other words, they are falling in love and being teenagers.
If there is one line that captures all the irreverence and deadpan satisfaction of this remarkable little film, it is this, spoken by Oliver to Jordana in his desperate plea to elicit sympathy and reconnect with her:
"My mother gave a handjob to a mystic."