All at Sea - Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade)

This article was first published on Culturewatch

Craig Roberts in Submarine (image courtesy Optimum Releasing. © 2011)

‘Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up.’ Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) would probably agree with Tom Stoppard’s wry comment. Oliver is fifteen years old and anxious to be grown up, yet struggling with the transition to adulthood. He’s a rather serious boy, full of both the self-importance and the insecurity of youth, and desperate to feel like he really belongs in the world. This desperation is a prominent feature in the landscape of adolescent experience. But Oliver feels it particularly keenly as he struggles with social isolation at school and frets about his parents’ (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) marital problems.

Like many teenagers, Oliver is insecure about his identity, not yet sure what kind of person he really is. In a voiceover at the outset of Richard Ayoade’s sharply observed and slightly surreal film, based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel, Oliver says, ‘Most people think of themselves as individuals, that there's no-one on the planet like them. This thought motivates them to get out of bed, eat food and walk around like nothing's wrong. My name is Oliver Tate.’ He knows he is different from others of his age, but we soon realise that he senses plenty wrong with his own personal world. We first see him daydreaming in a lesson in which his teacher challenges the class to deliberate on the question, ‘Who am I?’ Later, Oliver reflects:

I don't quite know what I am yet. I've tried smoking a pipe, flipping coins, listening exclusively to French crooners. Other times I go to the beach and stare at the sea. Someone made a documentary about a prominent thinker who struggled with unspeakable loss. I've even had a brief hat phase. But nothing stuck.

A sense of identity is not something that we form in isolation from others, however. Oliver must work out for himself what kind of person he is, but, like all of us, he can only do so in relation to others with whom his life intersects. He fantasises about being respected and adored by his peers, and about being somehow greater than ordinary human beings. He imagines himself as the subject of a film documentary, and daydreams about how the news of his death would shake, not just his school, but the whole country:

I find that the only way to get through life is to picture myself in an entirely disconnected reality. I often imagine how people would react to my death. Mr Dunthorne's quavering voice as he makes the announcement. The shocked faces of my classmates. A playground bedecked with flowers. The empty stillness of a school corridor. Local news analysis. . . . The steady stoicism of my parents. . . . Candlelit vigils. . . . And finally, my glorious resurrection.

Oliver may have a particularly dramatic imagination, but he voices the yearning to belong which everyone feels. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs sees only physiological requirements and the need for physical security as more basic than the need to belong and be loved. But Oliver makes a common error and confuses this desire with his hunger for physical intimacy. He badly wants to lose his virginity, and has his eye on Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), an abrasive, sullen pyromaniac who is also rather a loner. He is so desperate to win her approval that he joins in the bullying of a classmate, though he feels guilty for doing so. As is so often the case, mistreatment of others stems from personal insecurity and the drive to be seen as powerful in the eyes of others. The tactic seems to have worked when Jordana tells him to meet her secretly after school, and to bring a diary and a Polaroid camera. Yet Oliver’s self-doubt and confusion is reinforced by the realisation that Jordana is toying with him.

Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige in Submarine (image courtesy Optimum Releasing, © 2011)

Although a strange kind of bond develops between Oliver and Jordana, his world becomes even more precarious when he realises that Graham (Paddy Considine), the New Age motivational speaker who has moved in next door, was his mother’s first love. Oliver decides that his mission is to save his parents’ marriage, at least partly because in doing so he can save his sense of who he is. Whatever changes he may have wanted in his relationships at school now fade away in comparison to his desperation for his world to stay as it was. ‘I don't want a mystic ninja as a stepdad,’ he says. ‘I don't want to be from a broken home like Chip's . . . I want my family back. I don't want anything to change.’ Hampering his mission, though, is the impossibility of discerning what is actually going in another person’s mind and heart. Oliver says:

Tonight I stumbled across an encyclopaedia entry on ultrasound. Ultrasound is a sound vibration too high frequency to be audible. It was first developed to locate submerged objects – submarines, depth charges, Atlantis and such. Some animals, like bats, dolphins and dogs, can hear within the ultrasonic frequency. But no human can. No one can truly know what anyone thinks or feels. What's inside Mum? What's inside Dad? What's inside Jordana? We're all travelling under the radar undetected. And no-one can do a thing about it.

The famous developmental psychologist Erik Erikson outlines eight stages of human development, the fifth of which is adolescence. He argues that the key crisis at this stage is that of identity (he is credited with coining the term ‘identity crisis’) and confusion about roles in life, as teenagers struggle to work out their own intentions and those of others. He says that the main question which adolescents grapple with is, ‘Who am I and where am I going?’ This question burns at the core of Oliver’s existential crisis, but it is fuelled by the realisation that his solid home is suddenly fragile.

Submarine repeatedly uses water as a metaphor for the feeling that life is overwhelming, particularly in one surreal sequence when Oliver despairs of resolving his situation. When his father Lloyd sinks into depression, Oliver asks him what it feels like. ‘Like being underwater,’ replies Lloyd, prompting Oliver to ask, ‘Is that why you became a marine biologist?’ Water may also function as a metaphor for Oliver’s perplexity about his identity. If so, the two would be closely related: the sense of being swamped by life compounds his uncertainty at the very time when he most needs to know who he really is.

This growing up story appeals strongly to viewers. As well as being very funny, skilfully directed, and with fine acting performances, perhaps Submarine also connects with our own uncertainty about life. The question of ‘who am I and where am I going?’ is no longer one only asked by adolescents, but one which puzzles many people. Indeed, our society as a whole sometimes seems so bothered by the question that it’s tempting to see our culture as, in some sense, adolescent. It’s a burning question, yet many of the things which might once have provided firm foundations for answering it now seem flimsy and vulnerable. It’s a question which is right at the heart of most religions. Christianity, in particular, provides not only an answer to it, but a comprehensive explanation of why the question is such a vexed one so often.

In the Christian worldview, our identity is grounded in the fact that we are created by God, in the image of God, to be in relationship with God. The biblical understanding of human beings is that we, uniquely, are both physical and spiritual, and that while we are disconnected from God, we are inevitably failing to discover our true identity. But the Bible also recounts the dreadful facts of human rebellion against God, so that our default state is one of rejecting or ignoring God. As a consequence, our human relationships are compromised since, on the one hand, we expect other people to meet all our needs while, on the other hand, we let people down, or abuse or exploit them again and again. We end up trying to define our identity in relation to other people, yet we are all broken and damaged. It’s no wonder that we struggle.

The biblical story, though, isn’t a pessimistic catalogue of despair at our brokenness; it also offers us the hope of finding a new identity in relationship with God through faith in his son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again in order to reunite us with God. The consequence of that is a new destination in life: no longer need we be condemned to drift through life, alienated from God and doomed to separation from him for ever. Instead, the Bible anticipates the day when God will renew his creation, purifying it from all that corrupts this present order so that the redeemed humanity can live in an intimate relationship with God for ever.

This is a story that both makes sense of who we are now and holds out to us the possibility of us discovering our true identity and ultimate destiny. None of this is on Oliver’s radar – or sonar. He says, ‘No one can truly know what anyone thinks or feels. . . . We're all travelling under the radar undetected. And no one can do a thing about it.’ No human can, for sure. Except the one human being who was also fully God: Jesus Christ. We cannot define ourselves; we cannot rescue ourselves. Until we realise that God is reaching down to us, we’re all sinking under the waves.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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