A film review by Craig J. Koban April 6, 2021

MY SALINGER YEAR jjj
½ 

2021, R, 101 mins.

Margaret Qualley as Joanna  /  Sigourney Weaver as Margaret  /  Douglas Booth as Don  /  Seána Kerslake as Jenny  /  Brían F. O'Byrne as Hugh  /  Colm Feore as Daniel  /  Yanic Truesdale as Max  /  Théodore Pellerin as Boy from Winston-Salem

Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff

The title of this film is just a tad deceptive. 

MY SALINGER YEAR is not, as some would expect, a biopic about the infamously reclusive author of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in J.D. Salinger, but rather is based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff about her very brief time in the 1990s working for a literary agency in New York that just so happened to represent - you guessed it! - Mr. Salinger.  

Obviously, the whole aura of mystery surrounding this legendary author casts a rather large shadow over the characters in this film, but MY SALINGER YEAR is really about Rakoff's journey towards becoming a more self-actualized person and confident writer.  I've seen a lot of reviews that have been unfavorably calling this film a duller version of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (also about an impressionable up-and-comer squaring off against a domineering new boss in a media driven field), but this is sort of unfair.  I actually prefer the more low key and grounded approach to MY SALINGER YEAR's material, and as a 90s themed coming of age story (and as a person that was of college age in the decade) I found this film striking a more relevant chord with me. 

That, and the film benefits tremendously by the infinitely winning presence of star Margaret Qualley (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), who plays Joanna with the right blend of effervescent confidence and innocent naiveté.  As the film opens we witness her leaving her California college life behind her to spend some time in the Big Apple of the mid-1990s, and within no time she becomes immediately smitten with everything that the city has to offer her.  If anything, she finds her new surroundings as a positive conduit that inspires her writing, but getting her foot in the door is considerably harder than she anticipates.  She decides to take the first and only job that comes her way with any tangible relation to her education and career aspirations in a literary agency run by the extremely stubborn and old school Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who refuses to have any computers in her office despite the rise of the technology and the Internet explosion to come.  Initially, the wide eyed Joanna sees this as a potential stepping stone for her to become "extraordinary," but it soon becomes apparent that she's basically an errand running secretary and not much else. That seems like a positively soul crushing prospect for an aspiring poet. 

 

 

Early on Joanna discovers that this retro agency actually represents Salinger, an iconic writer that she's obviously heard of, but is a bit timid in admitting to her boss that she's never actually read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Nevertheless, Joanna is given an on-going make-work project by Margaret of going through all of Salinger's fan mail that the agency gets weekly and respond to them with a basic form letter that indicates that Salinger appreciates the letters and requests within, but has no desire to be back in the public eye.  This, of course, peaks Joanna's curiosity about Salinger and his Titanic sized legacy in the literary world, but she's handcuffed in her assignment in the sense that (a) she cannot pass the letters on to him and (b) she cannot reply to them in any other way other than instructed.  Of course, she ignores the latter order and begins to craft reply letters in the voice (she hopes) of the enigmatic author, and she does so while hoping to not be discovered by anyone in the process.  The more she deep dives into Salinger's fan mail the more she begins to reflect on her own hopes and aspirations as a writer and how working at this agency stuck in the past may not be the best thing for her.  Hell, when she even begins to answer Salinger's phone calls to the agency and he learns about what she does and what she hopes to do in life the writer gives her some plain advice: "Don't get stuck answering the phone for a living.  You're a poet!" 

The whole angle of Joanna dealing with all of the adoring Salinger fan mail is the intriguing hook of this film, mostly because se learns just how much of an integral part THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and its chief protagonist in Holden Caufield has had on the lives of many generations of readers.  Of course, Margaret and her agency are highly protective of their one big game client and his respect for absolute privacy, which is one of the main reasons why Joanna is ordered to respond to all of the mail with a polite dismissal letter.  Part of the allure, though, of MY SALINGER YEAR is that Joanna simply can't contain her passions as both a writer and a student of Salinger's work, which inspires her clandestine mission to essentially make up creative reply letters against her employer's will...and while posing as Salinger.  It's a thoroughly ballsy stunt, but it's not one done out of malice.  In many ways, doing this is therapeutic for Joanna, not to mentioned a bit educational.  Not only does this little pet project allow for her to flex her creative writing muscles, but it also provides a highly valuable portal into the power that an author has at influencing multiple facets of his fans' lives. 

I found a few other things quite intriguing in MY SALINGER YEAR.  Firstly, and as alluded to before, the film's time period represents a crucial point in the history of how media - moving forward - would be presented and consumed to the masses.  People like Margaret steadfastly hold onto the analogue past when so many other facets of life are beginning to embrace an omnipresent digital future that would fundamentally change, well, everything.  There's this wonderful push-pull dynamic permeating the picture as a result of this, but infused in that is the more personal tale of Joanna yearning to constantly better herself, her craft, and eventually do something with her gifts beyond merely wasting her days as a gopher for an out of touch agency.  One of the intense fears that Joanna begins to suffer from is that of stasis and not maturing her craft, which she feels her agency life is not nurturing.  The core relationship between her and Margaret doesn't quite go down the same preordained path that I was expecting going in.  Margaret herself is not the same kind of uncompromising, stone cold and icy resolved boss that, say, Streep's similar character was in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.  Weaver's subtle, but deceptively tuned in performance here suggest hidden layers of depth to Margaret that frankly makes her more interesting in respect.  And she's not out to completely sabotage Joanna's future either and gives her some advice that she takes to heart, like, for instance, reading more work of living writers to understand what speaks to people today.  Not bad advice, if I do say so. 

MY SALINGER YEAR won me over the most with Qualley's warm and inviting performance as this young and impressionable woman that is approaching a crucial junction point in her life when tough choices need to be made in order evolve and achieve one's goals.  Watching this film I was made to think of my own post-university desires (at roughly the same time) and the stressful choices I made to push through nagging uncertainties I had about where I was at the time.  Ultimately, I found Joanna's trek towards career and personal enlightenment to be tenderly told and without utilizing broad, melodramatic flourishes.  MY SALINGER YEAR has this calm nonchalance about it; as you watch the film it just kind of gently washes over you without having to methodically hammer home its plot beats and themes.  There are moments here when the film sometimes struggles with tonal cohesion and story momentum seems to drag a bit, but overall I found MY SALINGER YEAR to be splendidly acted and gracefully told with just the right touches, not to mention that it makes a strong case for the extremely disarming Qualley being an actress to watch out for moving forward.  

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