My Salinger Year (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Before she becomes a writer

While it is not exactly one of my No.1 favourite books, I understand well why J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” has been a beloved classic novel for many young people out there since it came out in 1951. After all, it is a very well-written book, and who cannot possibly identify with its lonely, disillusioned, and disaffected adolescent hero who is not so different from how you are or were in those wild and confusing adolescent years?

As many of you know, Salinger became a notorious recluse during his later years due to the unwanted popularity of “The Catcher in the Rye”, and he did not read or reply to any letter from the fans of the novel at all. As shown from Philippe Falardeau’s lightweight comedy film “My Salinger Year”, his literary agency simply received those heaps of fan letters on his behalf and then rejected all of them via its short reply, and it did that for many years before he died in 2010.

However, the focus of the movie is not on Salinger himself but on a young woman named Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley), who later wrote the memoir of the same name on which the movie is loosely based. At the beginning of the story, Joanna is initially supposed to spend some time in New York City before going back to Berkeley, California where her boyfriend is waiting, but she decides to stay much longer in the city for pursuing her aspiration to become a writer, and that is how she comes to look for any suitable temporary job to support her financially during the following period.

Fortunately, it does not take much time for Joanna to find a position which is not only quite suitable but also may help her future career a lot. She happens to get hired as an assistant in one of the oldest literary agencies in the city, and she cannot help but feel excited when she looks at the photographs of its several very famous clients such as Dylan Thomas, Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, Salinger.

Joanna works under Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a rather eccentric but no-nonsense boss who has run the agency for many years. Although it is the late 1990s, Margaret dislikes using computers, so Joanna has to use old typewriters when she does one job after another as instructed, but she does not complain at all because the decidedly old-fashioned mood of Margaret’s agency brings extra charm to her ongoing NYC experience. Besides, she happens to get quite close to a young dude who is also an aspiring writer just like her, and she soon finds herself living with him while also letting herself gradually estranged from her boyfriend, who virtually becomes an ex-boyfriend around that point.

Meanwhile, Joanna becomes more interested in handling those heaps of fan letters sent to Salinger, which must be constantly monitored due to how that book happened to be associated with the tragic killing of John Lennon in 1980. While some of the fan letters are rather weird, most of them are sincere about how “The Catcher in the Rye” means so much to their writers, and Joanna comes to wonder whether these people deserve more than that short reply she frequently types.

However, Margaret is pretty strict about how to handle this and other matters involved with Salinger. Sometimes Salinger calls the agency, and Joanna is naturally excited even though she has never read any of his books, but she must stick to the rules, especially when Salinger suddenly becomes quite interested in re-publishing a certain old work of his.

While Salinger and this possible publication project of his keep hovering around the fringe of the story, Falardeau’s screenplay leisurely flows from one episode to another. I was often amused by several eccentric figures in Margaret’s agency, and I particularly enjoyed a brief scene where Joanna is unexpectedly invited to Margaret’s lunch meeting by a Margaret’s longtime partner, whose private relationship with her later turns out to be more complex than expected.

The movie sometimes feels rather aimless, but everything is mostly held well together by the undeniable charming presence and talent of Margaret Qualley. Since her small but notable supporting turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019), this wonderful actress, who is incidentally the daughter of Andie MacDowell, has steadily advanced during last several years, and her likable performance here in this film confirms here that we are going to see a lot more of this promising actress in the future.

Around Qualley, several other cast members of the film fill each own spot as well as they can, though most of their supporting roles are underdeveloped on the whole. While her character is more or less than a mild version of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), Sigourney Weaver balances her seemingly frigid character well between comedy and drama, and she has a little poignant moment when Margaret comes to reveal a bit of her personal side to Joanna later in the story. In case of Brian F. O’Byrne, Yanic Truesdale, and Colm Feore, they are sadly under-utilized in comparison, but their colorful appearances do bring some extra personality to the film at least.

On the whole, “My Salinger Year” is a bit too light to leave a substantial impression on me, and it also tries a little too much when it attempts to present some of those Salinger fan letters more visually, but I was charmed enough by its cheerful mood coupled with some interesting things associated with literacy agency. I wish it did more correction and modification for some improvement in terms of story and characters, but I was not bored at all during my viewing, so I will not grumble for now.

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