My Salinger Year: a small-scaled film that never leaves its comfort zone

Philippe Falardeau, “My Salinger Year” (2020)

A film about finding your own voice and creative outlet, and being able to express that creativity, “My Salinger Year” is a likeable and charming piece if a little dull and at times giving the impression of playing safe. The film is based on poet / journalist Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working for the literary agent whose main client was the famously reclusive novelist J D Salinger, author of high school coming-of-age / teenage angst staple “The Catcher in the Rye”, back in the mid-1990s.

Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) impulsively leaves postgraduate school in California and jets off to New York to take up a position as assistant to literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who turns out to be a tetchy technophobic boss. Rakoff is given the job of replying to Salinger’s massive fanbase who send letters addressed to the famous writer; Salinger himself does not want to read these letters so Margaret’s agency sends generic form letters to his fans informing them that he will not reply. Rakoff has to read these letters nevertheless and choose the correct reply form letters; she begins to develop some empathy with some of the fan mail, as the writers see themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of “The Catcher in the Rye”, and pour their heart and soul into their correspondence. Rakoff starts to veer from the script, literally as well as figuratively speaking, and writes directly to some of the fans. This is risky for her as Margaret and her other employees treat Salinger and his demands with kid gloves and do not look upon even slight deviations from his instructions favourably.

Aside from the main plot, which is quite insubstantial and in itself not very entertaining for viewers who know little of the world of publishing and how writers were marketed in the pre-Internet age, there are various sub-plots which are equally shallow and under-developed. Rakoff forms a friendship with Salinger over the phone at work; Salinger becomes interested in Rakoff when he discovers she writes poetry in her spare time and urges her to keep writing every day. The people at work gently encourage Rakoff to develop and use her initiative and trust in her own intuition and decision-making, and this support helps her become a valuable employee in Margaret’s agency. Rakoff is in a relationship with a socialist bookshop worker / aspiring writer (Douglas Booth) who initially introduces her to his underground literary scene, which she finds stimulating at first, but who turns out self-centred and whose writing is mediocre and crude. At the same time Rakoff has never concluded her previous romance decisively and her old boyfriend (Hamza Haq) continues to write to her.

The acting overall is good though individual actors themselves, Weaver in particular, are not challenged by the script. Weaver has done the boss-from-hell routine in past films like Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” and very little in “My Salinger Year” deviates from that stereotype, even when her character suffers a life-changing blow. Qualley does well as Rakoff in her first lead role and just manages to hold her own in scenes with Weaver who dominates in every scene she appears in. Other actors provide good support though the script never allows them to be more than walking wallpaper.

Whimsical fantasy sequences in which some of Salinger’s earnest letter-writing fans appear – in deference to the prevailing Identity Politics / Diversity culture that has a stranglehold on Hollywood, these fans span a range of different ethnic groups, age demographics and life-styles, though how a black Vietnam vet and a migrant Vietnamese labourer can see something of themselves in a middle-class teenaged rebel with no cause is never explained – are worked into the film smoothly and discreetly, and are never allowed to overpower the narrative. Had Hollywood not been so enamoured of appealing to Diversity “values”, and simply allowed these fans to just be what they were in real life – people looking for connection and purpose to life, in their own immediate environments where the anomie born of capitalist society and its values which have destroyed community alternatives – the Rakoff character would have found real empathy with these lost people, they would have provided her with real material for her writing, her voice and creativity would have been truly inspired, and her path in life would have been clear. She would have been the poet and voice of a new lost generation searching for meaning and authentic values in a world becoming increasingly reliant on and captured by technology to the extent of surrendering itself to its dictates and the ruthless predatory capitalist values of its creators.

As it is, the film never strays at all from the comfort zone it sets for itself and the result is that it remains small in scale with a paper-thin plot and several sub-plots that remain unexplored and unsatisfactory. Rakoff’s character is not too convincing at times as a woman in a process of self-discovery but I suspect most young actors, even very good ones, would be defeated by the script and Falardeau’s direction. Viewers will feel frustrated that this coming-of-stage story turns out to have very little to say about the 1990s-era New York literary world and its values and pretentiousness.