Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year (2020), starts it’s story forty years after the book’s publication. When aspiring writer Joanna (Margaret Qualley) leaves her California university and boyfriend behind, and gets a job as an assistant at a literary agency who boasts Salinger – or ‘Jerry’ as he is known to those in the office – as their highest profile client.
J.D Salinger is one of those authors that everyone had to study in English growing up. His most famous book, Catcher in the Rye, is about a disaffected teenager who after getting expelled from boarding school, runs away to New York.
Joanna’s primary job is to dictate the tapes sent to her by the prickly, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) – continually wearing sunglasses in doors with a cigarette burning in one hand – and answer the hundreds of fan letters that Salinger receives, with a polite, yet sharp dismissal. The reclusive writer lives in total isolation, hasn’t written for years, and the agency plans to keep it that way.
It is a brave new world where computers are slowly entering the workspace – much to the dismay of Margaret who sticks a notice to the reluctantly purchased monitor, warning against loitering by the fascinating new machine. As Joanna begins to navigate the literary world on the edge of change, her own dreams begin to fade under the long work hours and the lack of support presented by her boss.
The dynamic of eager new employee and waspish boss occasionally strays into the territory of The Devil Wears Prada – Margaret’s eccentric yet stylish dress sense, and biting remarks are similar to Meryl Streep’s infamous portrayal of evil editor Miranda. There is a depth, an underlying warmth and heart that is given room to shine in Margaret’s quieter and more introspective moments. Joanna, on the other hand, manages to blend a naivety about her own place in the world, and a steely determination to achieve her dreams – an aspect that is given room to slowly grow and develop throughout.
My Salinger Year can be seen, at times, very narratively similar to Marielle Heller’s recent biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018); another film which depicts life around the edges of literary stardom, an outsider’s perspective into an enclosed world within a world. Both protagonists are navigating their lives on the edges of fame, never truly able to write what they truly desire; living at the whims of the clout and experience that they are lacking.
With Martini lunches that feels so out of place with the literary and journalism world today, the New York of My Salinger Year feels so familiar yet so out of reach. Falardeau and director of photography Sara Mishara drench the film in a nostalgic sepia tone, the oranges and blues of the cozy agency office, Joanna’s own clothing is all burnt orange – leaving the film with a feeling that is set earlier than the nineties. When a contemporary song bursts through the speakers at a rooftop literary party it feels oddly anachronistic with the rest of the film’s soothing melodic soundtrack.
There are moments when glimpses of another, perhaps more daring film, are allowed to break to the surface, through Joanna’s flights of fantasy as she imagines the writers of Salinger’s fan letters in their natural environment, or inserts them into her own life for advice. A dance scene in the lobby of the Waldorf is like a scene from a musical – a set piece that does not advance the narrative but somehow fits with the overall structure of the film, as the desire for, and expression of, imagination while navigating a job that does not allow it.
Joanna is naturally creative, and is unable to develop her own skills during this period of her career – here it takes the form of an imagined encounter with an ex-boyfriend, a tender and loving dance scene in which strangers embrace in a rare moment of connectivity. My Salinger Year is a solid period drama, with successful performances from both Qualley and Weaver. It captures a literary world that no longer exists, a world with decent salaries and long, luxurious lunches. It is undoubtedly a pleasant watch, but does not offer much depth beyond that.
My Salinger Year premiered at the 70th Berlinale, February 20th 2020
by Rose Dymock
Rose is a budding film critic, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She’s currently living back home in the Black Country in the West Midlands, juggling working full time and trying to break into criticism. She loves thrillers, great female characters, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema. She’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial and she wants a Lord of the Rings tattoo. Find her on twitter @rosedymock or on her website https://rosefd.wordpress.com/