The film may be billed “charming” but I’m not quite so sure the same applies to Oliver Tate, its central character. But then, what 15-year-old is? It’s an awkward, angst-ridden and – let’s face it – ugly stage of life. Actor turned writer/director Richard Ayoade (yes, he’s Moss from The IT Crowd) pieces together an idiosyncratic story of Oliver – a boy from a small village in Wales who possesses an overactive imagination, embarrassingly dull parents and a crush on class-mate Jordana.
There are wondrous moments, some lovely performances – especially from Mom (Sally Hawkins) and Dad (Noah Taylor) – but the collection of deadpan characters, the quirkily self-conscious style, and Oliver’s constant ironic reflections on life prevent any strong emotional attachment to proceedings. Oliver may be in love, but he looks like he’s been asked to eat a bowl of cold tripe.
The film opens with a voice-over narration from Oliver (Craig Roberts), a device signaling the film’s origins as the novel by Joe Dunthorne. Director Ayoade brings to life this unfettered access to Oliver’s mind with some very funny flashbacks – helped by the fact that Oliver imagines his life as a movie. We learn of his hopes (to win Jordana’s heartless heart) and his fears (that his parents will separate – he’s carefully charting the number of times they have sex). And when cocky magician and old flame of Mum’s moves into the neighbourhood, his fears take a turn for the worse.
Stylistically the film is a dazzling post-modern mix of early 1980’s kitsch (teenagers without mobile phones!) and French New Wave, edited briskly in places with jump cuts, stills inserts, and home movie footage. And of course there’s the ever-present theme of water. Like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Oliver’s world is fluid and unstable and he’s frequently framed through a fish tank or down at the beach. As the film’s title suggests, he imagines himself alone, underwater and operating out of sight of anyone else. It’s all plenty of fun to start with, but tires about halfway through the film, which is about that point you realize that everyone in the story is either emotional detached or emotionally constipated. The best thing to do is to sit back, relax and submerge yourself in Oliver’s witty, solipsistic, teenage world.