‘Ham on Rye’ is a Queer Coming of Age Reality Dressed Up As Surrealism

Three teenage girls sit in a sunlit glade in a dense green forest. They are all wearing white dresses as if going to church, with feminine hair and makeup done. They are all looking at a piece of paper held by the girl sitting in the middle.
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Released on MUBI UK in January 2021, and swiftly chosen for Sight and Sound’s Film of the Month, Taylor Taormina’s debut feature, Ham on Rye (2019), follows a group of teenagers through a suburbia and into a bizarre pseudo-prom-cum-mating-ritual at a local deli. Though initially presented as quiet realism, clearly rooted in indie coming-of-age tropes, set against the backdrop of a faceless yet familiar-feeling suburb, the twinges of timelessness and reverie soften the edges of the realism early on, and morph slowly into something altogether more surreal, as the dark undercurrents bubble over into the surface. 

One constant throughout this all, and a reminder that being sixteen is in itself a perfect storm of drudgery and surrealism, is Haley (Haley Bodell), the soft spoken skeptic of the group. Haley’s failure to throw herself unquestioningly into the teenage rituals separates her from her peers in more ways than one. While her peers, dressed in some sort of cross between peak school disco fashions and their Sunday best, chat about how this is the most important day of their lives for one reason, it feels like a day of reckoning in an wholly different way for Haley, the day where she is going to be forced to choose between accepting the expected, or breaking free and dealing with the consequences. 

Through Haley, the film’s surreal storyline actually show an extremely relatable teenage suburban queer experience: questioning the rites of passage that come so easily for most of your peers, and feeling like they are free to grow up and indulge in these rituals which are taken for granted, while you watch from the side, rather than lose your sense of self. 

Haley is never explicitly portrayed as a queer character, but neither is anybody else in the oppressive suburbia of Ham on Rye. The comp-het vibes are strong in the town and in the Monty’s ritual itself, which anyone who grew up even a little bit queer will know is a beautiful and painful piece of realism from Taormina. 

During the first act, as groups of teenagers make their way to Monty’s, heteronormativity seeps through every discussion. While getting ready, one girl asks her friends if they like her handbag; the response – and seemingly the only correct answer – is that the boys will probably like it (side note: has a teenage boy ever been drawn in by a handbag? If so, where was he when I was growing up, he sounds like great fun and I wish we could have been pals). Throughout these conversations, she shuffles awkwardly, already beginning to question the rituals of the day ahead of her. 

Three teenage boys sit on the hood of a car in a parking lot at night. The middle one, in a black t-shirt and jeans, is smoking, as is the blonde on the right.
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Although Haley is the only character to openly question the ritual at Monty’s which lies at the heart of the film, there is one other small glimmer of questioning. As a group of charmingly awkward boys make their way to Monty’s, the subject turns to ‘forking’, which a boy who clearly perceives himself to be more worldly than his companions reveals is ‘number one purpose in life’. This is hardly a radical take among hormone driven adolescents raised in conservative, heteronormative societies, rooting their beliefs in the value of reproduction. It’s refreshing therefore, to see one of the group stop to question the assertion with the reasonable question: “Where does that leave gay people? Or bisexual people? Do they have a purpose, or no purpose at all?”

We never find out whether the question came from a place of compassion or self-preservation, although we do see the boy in question ultimately pair off with a nice girl at Monty’s, though this is absolutely not to say that he doesn’t fall somewhere within the spectrum of bisexuality, and just happened to find a partnership which at first glance could fit more comfortably into a small-town status quo. Like Chekov’s gun, the film drew me in with an imagined queer subtext. If you ask a question like this in act one, you bet I am waiting for a big gay moment in act three… 

Rather than address the question, we cut to Hailey and Trish, and the very next words spoken after the question of what a grand purpose predicated on procreation might mean for gay people, come from Hailey, saying: “I’ve been thinking about Monty’s don’t you think it’s kind of weird? It just makes me kind of uncomfortable.”

What queer teenager hasn’t stopped to look at the rites of passage which so many straight teenagers find so intoxicating and instead see something toxic, weird, uncomfortable? In the two years of sixth form, I went to one sixth form ball with a boy, and the other with a girl, and let me tell you… I had way more fun at the one I went to with a girl than I ever did at the one with the boy, but I also know what a massive stroke of luck it was that in the late noughties that was a thing that was okay – just. Had that option been taken away, and had the opportunity to have a lukewarm beer and some grubby Doritos been laced with the prospect of an eternal comp-het life of unknowns and disappearance, I would have felt rather more than uncomfortable. 

Of course, Haley’s reservations are dismissed by her peers, who suggest that the problem is simply that she ‘thinks too much’, signalling that any deviation from the expected delight at the prospect that lies ahead of the teenagers is purely Haley’s problem, something she is othered and blamed for, surrounded by people who fit into the life they have always come to expect a little more easily, or at least a little more willingly. Haley’s reservations become all too much for her as she eventually turns and runs from Monty’s at the height of a mating ritual more than worthy of its own discovery planet special, and in which her peers pair up a way so arbitrary and based on little more than dance moves, panic and conspicuous heteronormativity. 

Haley sits in front of a dressing table mirror in her bedroom, whilst another girl pulls her hair back for her. She is wearing her pristine white dress and looks at herself with a blank expression.
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At this point, the Ham on Rye takes a decisive turn for the weird; those who have successfully paired off are raptured, and it would be easy to view this as a piece of indie surrealism from that point on. However, as Haley returns home and faces her family, heavy with the weight of what has happened and now entirely cut off from her friends, a quiet desperation takes hold, one reminiscent of Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2004 coming of age film My Summer of Love, or Miranda July’s 2020 quirky crime-drama Kadjillionaire than the classic high school dance type films evoked earlier. Moreover, Haley’s physical, literal alienation from her peers taps into the experience of teenage queerness, as distance forms between friends and different lives begin to grow and branch in their own directions. Haley’s repeated attempts to call Trish and Gwen after they are raptured by the Ham on Rye universe dating ritual could just as easily resemble an awkward falling out or the suspicion that homophobic societies teach young people to feel towards their queer peers.

After an oppressive series of scenes where Haley appears to be trapped and alone, with phones ringing off into the abyss, the film ends with her looking over a lake, and zooming in on the legs of a sunbathing woman. In this final scene, the sense of oppression lifts. For the first time Haley seems not just at peace, but happy, sitting in the sun, admiring a beautiful woman, in her own way and in her own time, the very embodiment of every cheesy ‘it gets better’ message reminding the queer kids out there that it can, and often does, get better. 

Despite the increasingly surreal journey that shapes Haley’s life, her story felt reminiscent of my own and so many of my friends’ experiences of growing up queer, knowing that something didn’t feel right in conforming to some of the norms and milestones that were expected, and feeling left behind, only to find a world of queer possibility and community outside of those norms.  The visceral horror being a teenager is so perfectly encapsulated through the weirdness, mystery and high-drama of teenagers pairing off and disappearing, but in understanding Haley as queer the film came together for me in a way which elevated it from beautiful and surreal to powerfully relatable. It also answered the question posed by the boys much earlier in the film about what life means for gay or bisexual people, as Haley carves her own path and finds her own happiness after a bumpy start. I hope all the Haley’s out there questioning their surroundings also find their peace in a sun-kissed afternoon of solitude, and a pair of beautiful legs. 

by Helen Bowie

Helen Bowie is a bisexual writer, performer and charity worker based in London. Her work has featured in Eater London, Beir Bua Journal and at The Vagina Museum, among others. Helen has one cat and several bafflingly strong opinions about extremely trivial matters, which she tweets about as @helensulis.

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