Set back in the days when e-mail was “a new trend that will phase out,” “My Salinger Year,” now on VOD, is a coming-of-age story of an aspiring writer who finds herself enmeshed in the shadow of one of the great, reclusive authors of the twentieth century.
Tired of analyzing other people’s work Joanna (Margaret Qualley) drops out of Berkeley to move to New York City to write. “Isn’t that what aspiring did?” she says. “Live in cheap apartments and write in cafes?” She gets a foot in the door with a job with Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), the old-school literary agent of “Catcher in the Rye” author J. D. Salinger. The reclusive author is alive and well, and still writing but unwilling to actually publish any of his work.
Margaret has lots of rules. No computers, no opened toed shoes and no need to wear stocking in the summer. Above all, no talking to Jerry, as in Jerry Salinger. “Jerry doesn’t want to hear about how much you love ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ she says, “and he doesn’t want to hear about your stories. Just say, Yes Jerry, ‘I’ll tell my boss you called.’”
Jerry also doesn’t want to hear from his readers, even though fans send letters by the truck load. Instead, the letters are read, that’s the bulk of Joanna’s new job, and responded to with a form letter.
Soon though, her secretarial role takes on a different dimension when she finds herself emotionally invested in the letters; the stories from fans about how Salinger’s work affected their lives. “I can’t send them a letter that says, ‘Dear Kid, J.D. Salinger doesn’t care about you.” Instead, she secretly begins personalizing the letters, discovering a new inner voice.
“My Salinger Year,” based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by Joanna Rakoff, is a coming-of-age story about pushing insecurity aside to find a path in life. Far from another “The Devil Wears Prada” knock-off—although Weaver has fun playing Joanna’s cantankerous, computer-hating boss—it’s subtler than that.
It works best when it focusses on Joanna’s time at the literary agency. Less so when she’s washing dishes in the bathtub of her cheap NYC apartment she shares with her Socialist boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth). Joanna’s relationship with Salinger (Tim Post, heard but barely seen) and Margaret are the gateways that define her need to step away from the life she knew; to be extraordinary. That’s the film’s most compelling journey, the rest feels shopworn.
“My Salinger Year” is about momentous changes in Joanna’s life, but it doesn’t feel momentous. Qualley is effective but emphasizes the character’s naiveté in a way that underplays Joanna’s journey. A third act dance number, one that visualizes Joanna’s reaction to reading “Catcher in the Rye,” brings the life the story deserves, but by then it’s too little, too late.