After making some controversial arguments about When Harry Met Sally and Love Actually, it was time to tone back RomCom Thursday, at least for one week. Enter Submarine, a small British coming-of-age romcom released in 2010. It stars a bunch of people you’ve never heard of (unless you’re into highbrow British film, in which case you probably know Sally Hawkins, who plays the protagonist’s mom), and is directed by that guy who didn’t really make sense on The Watch poster.
The plot follows Oliver Tate, an awkward 14-year-old with two goals: 1) lose his virginity before the end of the year and 2) save his parents’ marriage. The losing his virginity part is our rom, the saving his parents’ marriage part is our com. Well, not strictly speaking—though the film is marketed as a comedy, there’s not much to laugh out loud at. This is not a shortcoming of the production team, in the sense that there aren’t jokes that fall flat; the script’s aim, rather, is to present a series of uncomfortable situations that perhaps merit silent chuckles but no more.
Indeed, the focus is on light drama—Oliver confronting bullies, Oliver confronting rejection, Oliver confronting confusion about his emotions, Oliver confronting familial strife. The drama succeeds because the characters undergoing it are well-drawn and refreshingly true-to-life. Oliver’s father, for instance, is depressed. His unhappiness is expressed through an insatiable appetite for glasses of hot water with lemon and calls to the pothole repair hotline. Oliver’s mother, meanwhile, feels her youthful spirit intact but unappreciated and dabbles in an affair with the clairvoyant living next door.
But Oliver’s true foil is Jordana Bevin, a plain-looking and difficult classmate with a good deal more charisma than he. They are together within twenty minutes of the opening credits, but at first we feel that Jordana is still operating on a level above Oliver’s; then, finally, just when Oliver seems to have obtained her completely, the inevitable rom-com tropes kick in and put their romance in jeopardy.
Despite the film’s indie aspirations, it stays more or less true to the basic structure of the genre—chase, union, separation, reunion. Its adherence to the formula, though, only makes it more refreshing. Next to all the Katherine Heigl or mid-2000’s Matthew McConaughey vehicles, it’s nice to know someone is still capable of producing a tender, relatable rom-com.