At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much to The Submarine Kid. A returning-soldier story starring and co-written by the extremely pretty and '50s-marquee-idol-named Finn Wittrock. At second glance, though, well, there's still not a lot to it. But Wittrock, for all the hunky-best-friend supporting parts he's built his young career on in movies like Unbroken and My All-American, is a Juilliard graduate, and it turns out he's got something of a handle on how to use magical realism to tell a story. Not quite enough to bring it home, but he's getting there.
In the movie, Wittrock is Spencer, a marine back from the war who has Seen Some Stuff. His family and friends welcome him back, and his girlfriend, Emily (Jessy Schram), has waited for him. And yet, part of Spencer is still stuck in the trauma that got him rotated back home, seeing visions of his fellow soldiers and a mysterious woman wearing niqab. Fellow veteran Marc (Michael Beach), Spencer's boss at the bookstore where he takes a job, urges him to talk about his experiences, but Spencer insists he's fine.
Some relief seems to come when Spencer meets Alice (Emilie de Ravin), a seemingly free-spirited young woman in cat's-eye glasses who wanders into the shop one day. But then she introduces him to a comic book based on a local urban legend about "The Submarine Kid", who so loved being underwater that he practiced holding his breath longer and longer until one day he vanished in the lake.
Something in Spencer's mind takes hold of this idea. He becomes obsessed with holding his breath, pulling away from the surface world of his friends and family. They beg him to seek help, but their voices fade away, as if he's sinking below the surface. He tries holding his breath under water, veering close to suicide in his delusions.
To the movie's credit, it never avoids the need for professional intervention. There's a smarmy trap all too many stories like this one fall into, where if the people around a soldier suffering from PTSD just love and support them enough then everything will be all right. Wittrock also doesn't veer too far into playing Spencer as obviously haunted. It's not easy to tell at a glance whether someone is really okay, or whether they're hiding turbulence under the surface.
And yet, while it does some things right, The Submarine Kid comes up watery and insubstantial. Spencer's family are supportive, but little more; his friends are practically stock townie characters, with only "Toad" (Matt O'Leary) standing out as at all memorable. Even Alice seems curiously undeveloped for the central role she plays, and her interactions with Spencer lack much heft or meaning.
That said, it does get some things right, and Wittrock shows promise as a writer alongside his growing career as an actor. It may not be worth going out of your way to see, but it's not at all unpleasant to watch.
Rating: 2 out of 5