Oliver Tate is 15 years old and he’s got problems. First of all, he’s a virgin. To that end, he’s trying to make time with impish class troublemaker Jordana Bevan, an anti-romantic as dark as her hair. Then there is the quiet implosion of his parents’ marriage which in turn is complicated by new neighbor Graham, a phony, bemulleted new age guru with his picture painted on the side of his van and a romantic past with Oliver’s mum. So goes writer-director Richard Ayoade’s fractured, whimsical coming-of-age romance Submarine, a stylish but not entirely successful exercise in genre destruction based on Joe Dunthorne’s award-winning novel.

At first glance, Submarine looks like a riff on Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. It has that clean, colorful and timeless look, the cluttered production design, a pop soundtrack (though in this case written originally for the film by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner) and a certain above-it-all ironic detachment, but this is less a crib on Rushmore and more a nod to the same French New Age influences that inspire Anderson’s films. It also uses them to lesser effect. Where Anderson absorbs his many influences and reconstitutes them into an organic, self-supporting whole, music video director Ayoade only scratches the surface. While he successfully overturns and challenges the teen romance, he never transcends it and in the end he even submits to it.

That’s not to say Submarine is a bust. There is still a lot to like here. Craig Roberts is fine as the anti-hero Oliver who, with his dark hair, bulging eyes and black overcoat, is clearly inspired by Bud Cort’s Harold from Hal Ashby’s great Harold and Maude. That Oliver is less successful at earning your sympathy than Harold is more a problem of screenplay than performance.

The most successful parts of Submarine though are the supporting adult performances by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins as Oliver’s parents and by Paddy Considine as the fruitcake of a guru Graham. Together they create a sort of bizarre tableau, twisted by the fact we see them as Oliver sees them. For his part, Oliver is stuck between the strange people in his life on one hand, and the sort of forlorn Welsh industrial background on the other.

The problem with Submarine is that it (mostly) subverts the conventions of its form without replacing them with anything particularly compelling. This is another one of those movies that operate almost entirely on the surface without having believable or relatable emotional underpinnings. There’s one moment that feels real, when Oliver lets himself be roped into the tormenting of the class fat girl in the hope of impressing Jordana. Oliver feels bad about it and tries to atone at first, but then the whole thing is shrugged off. It’s as if Ayoade isn’t particularly interested in or understanding of the real feelings behind his characters’ actions.

Submarine looks great and Alex Turner’s pop songs are excellent to the point of feeling almost like they’re established classics. On the other hand, Andrew Hewitt’s score which reflects Oliver’s exaggerated inner turmoil is occasionally overbearing.

Overall, the whole thing is a little too precious and knowing. It’s highly watchable but ultimately unsatisfying. It borrows styles without putting them together into a coherent, convincing whole and finally torpedoes a genre without finding anything more interesting in the rubble.

Submarine. UK 2011. Written and directed by Richard Ayoade. Based upon the novel by Joe Dunthorne. Cinematography by Erik Alexander Wilson. Edited by Nick Fenton and Chris Dickens. Songs by Alex Turner. Original score by Andrew Hewitt. Starring Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins and Darren Evans. 1 hour 37 minutes. MPAA rated R for language and some sexual content. 3 stars (out of 5)

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