Submarine at 10: A Legacy of White Male Insecurity Leveraged as Comedic Device

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<i>Submarine</i> at 10: A Legacy of White Male Insecurity Leveraged as Comedic Device

The allure of indie coming-of-age movies is partially anchored in the room these films create for characters to be unabashedly offbeat, uncertain, particular. While there are memeable personality cults around pastel-clad, cigarette-smoking Andersonian characters and mumblecore films about well-off white twenty-somethings sorting themselves out in apartments they cannot afford, films that intentionally, unironically capture people on the brink of adulthood legitimize the discomfort of growing up. When young characters are no longer an amalgam of eccentric ideas and familiar—albeit embarrassing—rites of passage, they start to feel more like people.

Juno, for example, with Elliot Page’s quippy, Mott the Hoople-obsessed sing-song delivery, still resonates. Juno (Page) and Paulie (Michael Cera) don’t aim to stand out, but they are palpably distinct because they, unlike most characters their age, are unmotivated by the pull of post-pubescent popularity. They aren’t aiming to be different just like everyone else. Molly Ringwald’s revolving door of Hughesian girls find themselves either questioning the admiration they receive from their peers (Claire in The Breakfast Club) or yearning for it (Andie in Pretty in Pink, Samantha in Sixteen Candles). Understanding the merit of personal authenticity after first pandering for public approval, especially when done by white dudes, is the fulcrum of Apatowian teen sex comedies like Superbad. But of all of the intriguing indie bildungsromans of the last fifteen years about the perils of popularity and misunderstood white boys, few have impacted me as much as Richard Ayoade’s coming-of age comedy Submarine, which had its U.S premiere at Sundance 10 years ago.

The ultimate legacy of Submarine will likely be its more self-aware approach to its particular brand of coming-of-age, alongside its distinct visual style and sound. Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner composed original songs for the crimson and deep blue-tinged film. The combination of Turner’s meditative lyricism and Ayoade’s sublime direction (in his feature debut) has resulted in one of my favorite montages in film history.

Additionally, while Oliver’s follies are the crux of the film’s comedy, he—unlike other boys his age in these sorts of films—is not ultimately given a pass for his mistakes. As we reflect on what made Submarine and films like it affecting, it’s useful to confront the ways in which the shortcomings of young white men are typically painted as amusing and incapable of causing lasting harm, havoc or even danger.

Submarine follows Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old Welsh boy preoccupied with his “street cred;” the stale marriage of his parents, Jill (Sally Hawkins) and Lloyd (Noah Taylor); and his attraction to Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a semi-popular girl with bangs (because of course she has bangs) who performs indifference as a way of coping with her mother’s cancer diagnosis. One of the film’s most successful comedic tools, aside from its intermittent spitfire banter, is the depth of Oliver’s insecurity.

The style of Submarine doesn’t necessarily ask the audience to perceive Oliver as pathetic, or even laughable. Rather, the consequences of his becoming—the buffering of his personhood—create narrative tension which grounds the comedic elements of the film. For example, when sitting in a classroom alongside his peers, Oliver fantasizes about how deeply his classmates, Jordana and all of Wales might mourn were he to die—and like Christ himself, miraculously be resurrected. This scene is one of the film’s many playful, glimmering dream sequences.

In it, as Oliver imagines himself gloriously returning to the land of the living, he hovers above a group of fawning girls, donned in a Tolkien-esque cloak with a halo overhead. Nothing screams “I crave care and attention” more than fantasizing about how people might react to news of your untimely death. The funniness of this moment and others like it in Submarine is not any drum-kick backed joke—or even the flippant suggestion of suicidal ideation—but the ways Oliver’s inner mind is marked by a simultaneous desire for, and alienation from, an emotional intimacy which is tethered to his insecurity.

Modern indie comedies are not exactly unacquainted with young white men who are not fluent in their own interiorities nor introspective enough to move through the world self-assured. By the film’s end, Napoleon Dynamite’s Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a confident-ish badass—but he still doesn’t always have the language to offer his family or friends access to his inner mind. And that’s mostly fine, because that’s not the character. But Napoleon’s specific brand elicits a quiet admiration, which is linked to our amusement: There’s an unspoken understanding that there is something boyish and unfinished about him. The dissonance between the overt defeat on Napoleon’s countenance and the lack of confrontation when his tater tots are cleated is where the film’s humor rears its head highest. For another exemplary case, look no further than Scott Pilgrim (also Michael Cera). As he battles Ramona Flowers’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil exes in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (released the same year as Submarine), the audience is primed to find Scott’s wimpish ways—and his romantic toggling between Ramona and Knives Chao (Ellen Wong)—endearing, if imperfect.

Scott isn’t the nefarious one, right? He plays the bass, has floppy hair and, sure, strung this underage schoolgirl along…and also dated and dumped the drummer of his own band. But Scott’s mostly nice and trying his best, right? Look at how sweetly he stalks this technicolor-haired girl at this party and how his inconsideration is still rewarded in the end. Because Scott and characters like him are wandering towards emotional intelligence and maturity (or trying to, sort of), their journeys and all of the harm they knowingly or otherwise cause along the way is romanticized. Furthermore, we call it peak comedy.

Oliver Tate plops comfortably into this kiddie pool of floundering white men whose painful, comedic self-actualization has come to epitomize coming-of-age. But what are the social implications of the legacy of these sorts of characters? People find delight in the Napolean Dynamites, Scott Pilgrims and Oliver Tates of the indie world because their brand of emotional immaturity is, to be simplistic, cute when compared to the more obtuse, malicious behavior of overtly macho male characters. We laugh at the foibles of these young men because we consider them comparatively harmless.

While Oliver Tate’s sheepishness and good intentions certainly distinguish him from ‘80s villains like that Aryan asshole from The Karate Kid or classic kings of cool like Ferris Bueller, Tate—like all of the men referenced in this sentence—causes a great deal of harm. Because Oliver is so preoccupied with saving his parents’ marriage from the charisma of his mother’s past flame—Graham (Paddy Considine), a mystic ninja—he neglects Jordana’s emotional needs when her mother’s cancer worsens. Rather than fulfilling his commitment to a romantic relationship that he has tangible agency over, he leverages his general anxieties about the longevity of romantic love to meddle with his parents’ relationship. Of course, Oliver is only 15 and emotional maturity in young male characters does not mean perfection. There would be no film if Oliver was sound in an absolutist sense. But the issue isn’t simply that he is unavailable for Jordana, but that the audience is prompted by the legacy of these sorts of films to give him—and all those generally nice, albeit insecure, characters like him—a pass for the harm they do cause.

It is the same line of thought which motivates Scott Pilgrim fans to excuse Scott’s manipulation and exploitation of Knives Chao. Because these characters are not brash, their befuddled, homely indie boy sensibilities are coded as sweet. In these instances we conflate flagrant imperfection with a willing vulnerability or self-awareness. In a world of emotionally unavailable, horndog teen boy characters, Scott Pilgrim is deified for possessing legible feelings at all. But that also leads characters like Scott to be held less accountable than male characters cut from more blatantly violent cloths. The Safdie brothers’ films Good Time and Uncut Gems masterfully capture the danger of this dynamic and the insidious way white male insecurity can manifest in drastic violence. While Oliver Tate and Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) live in different cinematic universes altogether, it is not hard to see how their respective failings are linked: One’s stoked for amusement and the other, anxiety.

Submarine’s ambiguous ending and the uncertainty of Oliver’s fate threads the needle, both complying with and placing pressure upon the legacy of male coming-of-age movies. Jordana doesn’t take Oliver back despite his teary apology and, while health is restored to his parent’s marriage, he isn’t thanked for his social overstepping. The film does not satisfy the audience’s ostensible desire to see Oliver win outright; it does not applaud him for trying to step out of the kiddie pool. Rather, right before the credits close, we see him reckon with the time when he was fully submerged (like a submarine) under his own self-doubt and uncertainty.

Oliver’s dizzying dance between thoughtlessness and accountability throughout Submarine is fittingly encapsulated in “Hiding Tonight,” the Alex Turner track which scores that delectable aforementioned montage. In the song, the speaker suggests that he’ll become the better version of himself in some distant future, but assures himself that for tonight he can continue to hide. Turner’s song does the dual work of reflecting the boyish insecurity of teen films and encapsulating Oliver’s mixture of eagerness and apprehension to take accountability for his behavior. Perhaps the following lines can serve as an unofficial anthem for characters and audience members alike who luxuriate in the multi-faceted comfort of that “hiding:”

...I’ll have a spring in my step, and I’ll get there soon
To sing you a happy tune, tomorrow
And you better bring a change of clothes
So we can sail our laughing pianos
Along a beam of light
But I’m quite alright hiding tonight…


Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna.

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