“I don’t want to be ordinary. I want to be extraordinarily.” Can’t blame anyone for that. It’s a life goal of the lead character in the upcoming drama “My Salinger Year”, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau. The film is based on the memoir of Joanna Rakoff and follows her days working for one of New York’s oldest literary agencies during the mid 1990s. But at its core the movie is about a young woman finding herself and mustering the courage to follow her own dreams regardless of the uncertainties attached to them.
The movie stars Margaret Qualley who broke out as a hitchhiking hippie in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Here she plays Joanna, a twenty-something aspiring writer from Berkeley who we first see arriving in New York City to visit an old friend. She’s quickly drawn in by her romanticized idea of a writer’s life in New York. “Isn’t that what writers did? she ponders, “live in cheap apartments and write in cafés?”. It’s enough to keep Joanna in the Big Apple, leaving her old life and her boyfriend Karl (Hamza Haq) behind in California.
She gets a job as an assistant at a renowned literary agency in New York. It’s ran by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a savvy and cantankerous professional with a comical distaste for the digital age. But she knows the business and runs a tight ship. Joanna gets put to work doing dictations and opening fan mail for the agencies star client, the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye”. She’s instructed to read the letters and then answer them with one of several carefully prepared form letters informing the sender that Mr. Salinger doesn’t accept mail from fans. It’s hardly a job for a writer but it does put her on a much-needed path of self-discovery.
Qualley brings a sweetness and naivete to Joanna that shows itself in her professional and personal life. She and Weaver have a terrific business-like chemistry and Qualley mixes well with several good faces around the office. Away from her job Joanna meets and falls for a millennial hipster and fellow writer named Don (Douglas Booth) who she meets at a “socialist bookstore”. Much like the bohemian living, Don fits an illusion Joanna has, this time of a relationship that sounds ideal but that (much like her job) puts her dreams on the backburner. Together, all of these things makes her think the trendy New York writer’s lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The biggest encouragement Joanna gets comes from none other than J.D. Salinger himself. She is familiar with his name but not his work. She’s never even read “The Catcher in the Rye”. But the unsolicited wisdom and advice the author gives her during passing phone conversations plant seeds of inspiration. Falardeau chooses to never show us Salinger’s face, tapping into the hermit’s enigmatic reputation. It’s an interesting choice that works better than expected. One choice that doesn’t quite work are the first-person montages of Salinger fans who have written to the author only to get Joanna’s form letter as a reply. They add faces to the letters, but outside of that the scenes are jarring inclusions and its hard to sense what the movie is going for.
“My Salinger Year” is a charming and earnest drama that tells its story with a warm sincerity but muted emotions. Qualley is good here and often better than the material which rarely gives her character opportunities to express her feelings in a satisfying way. There seems to be so much left inside of Joanna that’s alluded to but never explored. Still, Qualley imbues Joanna with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes her easy to root for. And Weaver’s Margaret is the abrasive slice of reality that brings Joanna down to earth and opens her eyes to the real world. Together they’re quite the entertaining pair. “My Salinger Year” opens March 5th in select theaters and on VOD.
VERDICT – 3 STARS