'My Salinger Year' Is a Stylish Glimpse into a Bygone Era of Literature Directed by Philippe Falardeau
Starring Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver
Published Mar 04, 2021What's instantly captivating about Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau's My Salinger Year is its relatability. In one of the film's opening scenes, a young woman named Joanna (Margaret Qualley) recounts how she grew up in a quiet, suburban town outside New York City and how she dreamed of one day living there — of working as an author, growing into a more cultured person, and become someone extraordinary. Falardeau's screen adaptation of Joanna Rakoff's memoir of the same name instantly makes the audience reflect on how our respective lives can shift when you meet new people or are exposed to a different environment. How your dreams and goals change; how we are unaware of all of life's possibilities because, at one time or another, everything seemed out of reach; how uncertainty shouldn't taint your pursuits. Joanna wants it all. Thrown into the literary world, My Salinger Year is a take on life through the eyes of an ambitious writer as she must learn to navigate this new environment while also not letting any constraints hold her back.
Leaving Berkeley and her boyfriend behind, she moves back to the East Coast to live out her New York City dream – one that involves buying an apartment without a sink. She didn't intend to stay there forever, but when she lands a job at a prestigious literary agency, her plans shift. This agency is run by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who's basically the Miranda Priestly of books. Incredibly old-fashioned, she keeps the office stuck in a bygone era, one reminiscent of when it represented authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie. It's New York in the '90s but you could never tell with all the dictaphones and typewriters. The set and costume design also elevate the feeling that the agency is stuck in time with its mid-century modern aesthetic. When Joanne ventures outside, the narrative feels like it's taking place in a completely different world.
Joanna is an awestruck kid who doesn't know what she's getting into, and as the title suggests, her year spent at the agency involves working with The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger. A private man, the author isn't the film's main focus. However, with his photo on the wall of the office, his books on the shelves, his name dropped frequently, and his occasional telephone conversation with Joanna, his presence is felt in almost every scene. One of her tasks at the office involves reading Salinger's fan mail. He refuses to receive any, and so they must all be shredded. As Joanna reads, the film makes the brilliant choice of having each letter-writer break the fourth wall and recite to the audience what they wish Salinger to know. Instead of simply having Qualley do the narration, this allows the audience to see these fans from all walks of life, and the film creates the intimacy that comes with letter writing and how we all crave some sort of response from the people we admire. As she reads, she becomes attached to these people. They become an inner voice in a way for her, and she starts to respond to them as herself, which gets her into some uncomfortable situations. While taking inspiration from Salinger's own advice and voice, she begins to discover her own.
My Salinger Year is a compelling drama with well-written characters and a score by Martin Léon that has the perfect energy to fit the fast pace of Joanna's new job and accompany the film's main conflict. This conflict is one of the film's few faults; when we learned that Salinger wants to publish again for the first time in 30 years, an investigation ensues to get as much dirt on the publishing company he's working with as possible. This substantial piece of the narrative is often hard to follow and unclear, but Qualley is so charming in the role that it doesn't seem to matter after a while. She embodies the awkwardness and anxiety that comes with putting yourself out of your comfort zone and pursuing something without a clear end result in sight. She complements Weaver's stern and stubborn Margaret, who is stuck in her old ways but growing more open-minded and understanding as time passes. Her effortless glamour is also one of the many reasons why the film is so stylish.
Falardeau successfully adapts a script that's both humorous and moving. A film about how commercial success often doesn't equate to spiritual success, it is an ode to writers, poets, book-lovers, and aspiring novelists alike. Above all, however, it's about the nostalgia that literature can create and the power it has on its readers.
My Salinger Year is out on VOD on March 5. (Mongrel Media)