Writer/director Alex Piperno’s first feature-length film, Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine, debuted in 2020 and is now screening during the 52nd Nashville Film Festival. Piperno’s tale is one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve had in 2021 as it never seeks to tell you anything more than what you need to know, propelled by minimal dialogue and a great deal of inference. It is, at times, a frustrating and potentially creepy watch, yet, once begun, you’ll feel absolutely compelled to finish this film which feels like a dream made real. Though the film offers little in the way of answers to the questions it puts forward, at least the lengthy title will make a great deal of sense by credits roll, ending a most strange adventure on a bittersweet laugh.
Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine is a tale told from three perspectives which intersect in an unexpected way. Simply put, aboard a cruise ship, a worker, called Boy (Daniel Quiroga), discovers that a hidden doorway leads to the apartment of a single woman (Inés Bortagaray). What neither Boy or the woman realize is that there’s a third portal within a shed that’s appeared out of nowhere in the fields of the Philippines, upsetting the locals who can hear a strange rumbling from within, but dare not open it as it may be a cursed object. Window Boy explores the terror of the unknown, the anxiety of loneliness, and the interconnectedness of life.
In the Q&A which accompanied the virtual screenings, Piperno bristled a bit at the description of Window Boy as observational cinema, with the objection being that it’s not that we’re watching these characters but we’re investigating situations with them. Considering the abundant lack of dialogue and the requirement of the audience to figure out the rules of the film on their own, calling the film “observational” certainly makes a great deal of sense as we, the audience, have no bearing on anything occurring within unless one of the three principles — including Noli (Noli Tobol), the person who finds the shed in the Philippines — speaks or takes action. We observe them as they interact with their fellows, by themselves, or, to a degree, with each other. We observe how their own fears and anxieties, and those of their communities, shape the narrative within Window Boy. This is, of course, true of all films, as the audience is entirely ineffectual in creating change or making decisions for the characters. (Even a Choose Your Own Adventure film is itself a bit on rails with the outcomes known based on prior choices, but I digress…) Piperno is correct, however, as he positions everything in Window Boy as a mystery, one which the characters and audience are never really privy to understanding. To a large degree, the best way to describe the film is that of an extended dream, jumping from location to location, moving in and out of time, shifting in position and tone without warning. In this regard, it’s best to just allow Window Boy to wash over you, riding with the flow rather than attempting anything that might place you on a lucid path.
A quick word of caution before diving in further, for those who’ve experienced home invasion, assault, or abuse from an unknown individual, Window Boy does not engage in any of this type of activity, even if the styling and staging of a few shots might imply it. We don’t really know how Boy found the portal, but, by the time we learn of its connection to the cruise ship, it’s after we’ve watched him watch the woman before sneaking into her home. Perhaps it’s just the type of entertainment we’re used to or a creeping malevolence in our subconscious, but there’s an expectation that Boy will somehow violate the woman beyond sneaking into her home (not a great thing either, to be frank). So if you’re sensitive to that type of storytelling, Window Boy will walk the line, but never cross over. My suspicion for this is that Piperno uses Boy and the woman to explore various types of loneliness and classism; things which would be lost if Boy or the woman possessed any conflict.
Instead, Piperno positions them as guides to explore how we connect with others and how backgrounds are little more than distractions from getting to the people within. Consider that Boy is working on a cruise ship hosting a great deal of mature guests, of the age and financial security where they can afford to go on a cruise ship vacation with multiple decks, elaborate party events, and a fine interior. We only see glimpses of it when setting up where Boy is as he spends his time spraying down the side of the boat, clearing water from the deck, and trying to stay warm. Even though he shares a space with several other crew members, Boy is alone. By contrast, the woman lives in a comfortable apartment, yet has no one to share it with, resigned to lonely meals in front of the television. With the hindbrain screaming at us, the audience, upon seeing Boy observe her as he navigates her apartment in the dark, we’re too distracted to see the tale of longing within. That Piperno jumps around so that we don’t get the intermediate moments between Boy and the woman, their confrontation to resolution can seem rushed, but that’s only if you allow the restraints of traditional storytelling to restrict your absorption of Piperno’s subtext.
With so much of the film lacking a concrete narrative, it falls to Manuel Rebella’s cinematography and the performances from the cast to convey the missing pieces. Though Boy is the focal point, credit must be given to Tobol as the figure who both introduces the story and whose world is not only the furthest from the action but the most central. If Boy is lonely amid the rich and the woman is lonely among the plenty, Tobol is neither lonely nor rich, yet is entirely satisfied, wanting only for his family and his village to be safe. He and his people don’t understand from whence the shed came nor why it seems to rumble, so they resort to their traditional methods of dispelling curses or evil spirits. Don’t take this to mean that Tobol’s people are luddites, separated entirely from modernity, as they wear fairly modern clothes and carry flashlights. In short, this is not a The God’s Must Be Crazy (1980) situation. Yet the lack of clear reason does give way to traditional believes, opening the door to a truly unexpected conclusion. Through this narrative tether, Piperno suggests the power of human connection and how, when we don’t understand something, fear becomes an overriding director of action. Rebella’s cinematography bolsters this by imbuing a sort of dreamlike quality to all scenes, yet making sure they’re grounded in their presentation. Nights are not scary, there is no strangeness or “other” quality to any situation, there is only what the scene is and what the actors bring to it.
Considering that Piperno waved off any responsibility of what the film means in the Q&A, Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine is entirely up to the audience to decipher. By the end, I found myself filled with more questions than the film has any hope of answering, relegated to my own mind and how I perceive dreams. We each lay down to sleep, our minds processing our feelings and thoughts into a psychological adventure for one. Is it truly so lonely to dream if we’re all doing it? Are we really so alone when there are others like us across the world? Though I’m not sure Piperno’s got an answer, I do enjoy that I felt inspired to ask.
Screening during the 2021 Nashville Film Festival.
Head to the festival’s Eventive page to purchase virtual tickets for Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.