The thing about ‘coming of age’ stories is that there are just so damn many of them, and they all seem too damned twee for their own good. Young people seem to be travelling to big cities all the time, hoping to follow dreams and having to make do with outrageously phenomenal jobs along the way. They learn valuable life lessons from eccentric mentors, live in apartments much too expensive to be believed, and eventually throw it all away to become the artist that they always wanted to be. Money is rarely a serious problem; it inconveniences rather than ruins lives, and at worst it magically enables a bohemian lifestyle of perfect vintage clothing and stylish retro furnishings.
Philippe Falardeau’s 2020 drama My Salinger Year (released in some territories as My New York Year) is handsomely produced and very well cast, and presents a rich and heart-warming story of experiences gained and lessons learned. At the same time it feels almost achingly irritating. The entire enterprise feels deeply artificial, like a carefully assembled French pastry: it is lovely to look at, and clearly produced with great care, but is too sickly to comfortably eat and covers the eater in icing sugar. What makes its stereotypical story of convenient self-realisation so odd is that it is based on a true story. Several of the film’s less believable elements actually happened.
Joanna (Margaret Qualley), visiting New York between semesters of university, makes the impulsive decision to abandon her studies and a waiting boyfriend and try to make a life for herself in the big city. She immediately secures a job as assistant to literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), whose clients include the famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Tasked with screening and then disposing of Salinger’s fan mail – the author refuses to accept any of it himself – Joanna begins to be inspired by the letters and the diverse range of people who wrote them.
There will always be an audience for this kind of slightly intellectual comfort viewing, and to its credit My Salinger Year does an awful lot right. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as the old-fashioned, technology-fearing Margaret, and manages to create a character who is spiky and relatable in equal measure. Margaret Qualley is warmly optimistic as Joanna, and immediately easy to watch, but struggles with some wobbly scriptwriting that require her character to be unnaturally credulous (her new boyfriend, played by Douglas Booth, is a walking alarm bell visible from orbit).
What causes the film to subsequently weaken in the mind is the insidious stink of privilege. The fictional Joanna effortlessly moves to New York and coasts into the sort of job thousands of aspiring literary enthusiasts would dream of. She engages in behaviours that should easily see her fired, but gets away with it. She is always wearing the nicest vintage clothes while sitting on fashionable secondhand furniture. When she is miserable she eats desserts at the Astoria Hotel. When she needs life guidance she gets it from one of the greatest authors of American literature. It honestly feels as if there is no cost to her personal growth, and any price paid is temporary and superficial. The cast do an excellent job of entertaining the audience, but ultimately they are flesh masquerading over a skeleton made of jelly.
What is particularly galling is that there are elements of Joanna Rakoff’s real-life experience that could have corrected all of this. A major subplot of the film sees Joanna get involved in Salinger’s spontaneous decision to publish a new book; the film fails to reveal that the actual project ended in failure. The real Joanna was stunned when her father loaded her with college loans, secretly taken out in her name to pay for her education; the cinematic Joanna is never saddled with anything more than vague financial worry. The film has been well-polished into convenient absurdity. It is free of complexity and devoid of cost. It looks great, plays appealingly, and then sinks like a stone the moment one has a moment to think about it. It’s all rather enjoyable. Until it isn’t.