My early adolescence feels like a movie I haven’t seen in a long time. When I first watched it, I thought it was profound, tragic—a saga for our generation. Memory has clouded the plot and left me with moods and snapshots: oceans of feeling, crippling insecurity, the thrill of footsie in Algebra and the sting of a valentine found in the trash.
Imaginary critics’ blurbs grace the DVD cover: “Lauren’s Struggle is a tour de force! Bursting with wit and pathos, you’ll want to watch it again and again!”
Except, of course, that you wouldn’t.
Junior high was my most prolific time as a writer. Words gushed into diaries with an urgency that I’ve yet to replicate. The subjects—unrequited love and philosophical angst—lend themselves to an earnest, confessional style.
Surely there’s nothing wrong with a teenager stashing some feelings under a mattress.
But I remember the distinct and guilty feeling that I was writing a future classic. Despite my best efforts at objectivity, I knew that my pain was monumental, my prose was piercing—that I was just this side of being a child prodigy.
And so my writing, however raw in substance, took on an undeniable element of performance.
These are the things we forget about being fourteen. Films plunge our young protagonists into an adult world, each coming-of-age earned by choices and bruises. It’s true: adolescence is one of humanity’s most vulnerable states, and the lessons learned on the way to adulthood can be tender and meaningful. But the self-absorption that comes with being a teenager is truly stunning, and entirely undetectable while in the midst of it. It’s certainly not without excuse (hey, I’m forging an identity here!). But it’s also hard to exaggerate.
I had the cast picked out for the movie of my life that I had outlined. I am not making this up.
Neither is Richard Ayoade, really, even though his film Submarine is, in fact, fictional. No one writes a character as honest as Oliver Tate without having lived in him a little. Our first encounter with Oliver is in his opening note to the audience, informing us that this, his biopic, is an important film, and we ought to watch it with respect. “With regards from your protagonist,” he signs, plainly and unironically announcing himself as the hero of his own life.
What follows may seem, at first, to be a bag of narrative tricks dumped into a familiar tale of first love. Oliver is infatuated with a girl in his class. His parents are having marital troubles. The film is divided into Wes Anderson-style chapters with sly title cards, its characters outfitted with all the requisite quirks.
But while Ayoade’s mannered filmmaking may be initially off-putting, it only takes a bit of time to see that it’s a perfect match for the whirring gears inside our hero’s head.
Consider the use of voiceover. Often cited as evidence for lazy storytelling, the device has never seemed more vital than in the adolescent affectations of Submarine. The film understands that, for a teenager, half the story is in your head—possibly the important half. When Oliver hands off a manual that he has carefully crafted for a classmate, it’s almost a moment of redemption.
But he chooses this point to remark that he wishes he had a film crew following him, so that they could mark the occasion by panning out dramatically.
I really gave in when the film got to the obligatory romantic montage. Our precocious young lovers run amidst fireworks and lounge in a bathtub on the beach. I was perfectly willing to accept this as is, but the montage soon turns into what Oliver calls “the Super 8 footage of memory”—which he takes it upon himself to recompile into his own film, “Directed by Oliver Tate, Starring Oliver Tate.”
It sounds cutesy, but it’s not. The way Oliver obsessively frames his life can be funny, but it’s also sad, even repellant.
Submarine is one of the best uses of the unreliable narrator that I’ve seen on film. Ayoade is unflinching in his portrayal of the adolescent ego, but he’s not without compassion. Oliver spends half the film pining after a girl, but the other half finds him on a quest to save his parents’ marriage.
Even in his relentless self-interest, altruism can’t help but bubble up in the love letters he forges for his father, or the way he dims the lights in his parents’ room in hopes of kindling passion.
Oliver’s central anxiety is not only that he will not be understood—it’s that he will not understand others either. “No one can truly know how any other person thinks or feels,” he worries. “We’re all falling under the radar.”
This is the secret strength of adolescents. The weight of their own loneliness forces them to understand, for the first time, that the world is full of other lonely people.
So they get in the submarine. They’re looking for themselves down there, but they’re also hoping to run into their friends, their parents, their loves.
Teenagers can be an easy target for critics, and I was painfully aware of this possibility even at thirteen. I wrote a letter to my future self, asking future me not to judge thirteen-year-old me too harshly, to acknowledge the depth of what I felt.
My teenage years should be subject to a good ribbing, but if I’m honest, I haven’t really given up on the film crew idea. Oliver Tate and I have both tried to acquit ourselves by telling our stories on exactly our terms—and we’ve both failed miserably, exposing exactly the pride and fear we hoped to obscure.
If coming of age happens when you realize that your life is not a biopic, I’m not quite there yet.
But at least there are films like Submarine to nudge me out of the director’s chair.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Lauren Wilford
Lauren Wilford is an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University studying art history and theater. She blogs on film and music on numerous websites. Her Tumblr website can be found here www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com.