J.D Salinger brings out a lot of strong emotions in people. The reclusive author, and especially his seminal work The Catcher in the Rye, just have that effect on folks. My Salinger Year plays with that notion, while still telling a lovely little story that doesn’t rely on Salinger. Based on Joanna Rakoff‘s book of the same name, it’s a character study through and through. While it is largely on the simple side, there’s an effectiveness to it that makes the film hard to resist. Plus, when you cast one of the more underrated young actresses out there in the lead role, that doesn’t hurt, either.
My Salinger Year wisely makes sure that Salinger is always in the background, but rarely front and center. The movie understands what a project like Rebel in the Rye was mistaken about. We want to know about the author, but when someone is as mysterious as he is, a little bit goes a long way. Filtering the experience through an audience surrogate solves that problem. The end result is a familiar flick, but one that hits a majority of the right notes.
Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) is a college graduate and aspiring writer in the 1990s. Needing a job after landing in New York City, she’s hired by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who runs a prestigious old literary agency. One of their clients is none other than reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Tasked with being Margaret’s assistant, one of Joanna’s jobs is to read Salinger fan letters, sending back a form response. Initially, she does as told, but quickly, that begins to change.
Struck by the emotion in the letters, Joanna begins responding to them. This correspondence doesn’t sit well with the agency when they find out, but it means a lot to her. Plus, as she engages with Salinger on the phone, as well as his words on the page, she begins to take stock of herself. Is she happy with her new live-in boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), or was she happier with an ex? Should she be focusing on writing full-time, as opposed to working her way up the ranks in publishing? The words of Salinger flow through her as she considers her options.
Both Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver are elegant and understated here. The former is truly an expressive actress, with her face showcasing huge bursts of personality. Qualley doesn’t get nearly enough lead roles, so this is a welcome change of pace. As for the latter, Weaver presents a boss figure with a gruff exterior, but one who sees something in our heroine. It may not be Weaver’s most challenging role, but she pulls it off with ease. It’s simply Qualley who’s more impressive. Douglas Booth does what he can with an annoying role, Brian F. O’Byrne is fine yet forgettable, while Colm Feore is solid in a small yet crucial part.
Filmmaker Philippe Falardeau writes and directs with an ample amount of restraint. Aside from making Don a character you don’t want to spend time with, his adaptation of Rakoff’s book is fairly sturdy. The story beats comes across with clarity and the themes are always easy to see present. As a director, Falardeau gives My Salinger Year a light sense of style. Watching Joanna interact with some of the authors of the letters has a bit of flair to it. It’s not distracting, but it is different than the rest of the film, so it’s noticeable. His pacing is also somewhat inconsistent, so there are small things holding this back from really soaring. Just know that it’s good, but perhaps could have been great.
My Salinger Year isn’t re-inventing the wheel, but it doesn’t have to. The movie is content to be a successful character study, one with a small hook to it in terms of who is on the periphery of the story. Especially if you like Qualley, there’s plenty here to latch on to. Give the flick a shot and you’ll almost certainly find it to be an engaging experience.