Adolescence is a strange time: old enough to be aware of your responsibilities, but still aeons away from the mysterious and serious world of adulthood. In this curious new film, a debut feature for writer/director Tyler Taormina, these divisions and differences are given a significance to reflect the heightened teenage emotions.
Ham on Rye is ostensibly working in the perennial teen movie genre, opening with various groups of young people all preparing for something vaguely described as “a day we’re gonna remember for the rest of our lives.” Perhaps their age, or a trio of girls in bridal-like dresses, could be clues to what they are heading towards. But this is no normal graduation or wedding, and its effects on the community are what the narrative continues to explore. The gnomic title (referring to that most mundane of objects, a sandwich) has more to do with things than you might expect. In David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a figure promises that “in heaven, everything is fine”—an ambiguous moment echoed here with a huge sense of foreboding by a postcard chiding that once older, “honestly, everything is so good.”
As a stylistic exercise, the film is utterly engaging; you know from the first frames that this is no typical teen feature, with the bubbly mustard-coloured credits font, wafting shots that seem to linger on unimportant elements of the environment and even occasional direct sight-lines into camera. If anything, it was perhaps reminiscent of the pastel pastiche of Anna Biller’s fabulous The Love Witch, or the dislocated timeless limbo of It Follows—at one key moment, one character whips out a VHS camcorder to record a keepsake.
At its heart, beneath all of this dressing, the film is about growing up; the ritual scene that all the kids are looking forward to at the beginning is not spelled out, but works out a way to conjure a magic-realist metaphor for the inter-( and even intra-)generational discords that seem so world-changing in the period when we transition into adulthood. I must confess, the details remain so un-spelled out that I checked a synopsis after the film and had formed a completely different reading of what had happened. But Taormina’s direction is so fluid that this doesn’t matter, especially as the focus is purely on the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the central event. Such a description risks making the film sound too academic, so I should stress that through all the strangeness, it was a pleasure to watch. Many moments are laugh-out-loud funny despite the deadpan delivery, which is an aesthetic choice that creates strange rhythms to maintain a level of intrigue throughout all of the scenes.
The film’s musical sense is also hugely appealing. The creative visuals are matched by a prevalence of sunny 60s girl groups, both real and fabricated, and woozy teen-folk. The surrealist refusal to spell anything out for the viewer means that the film’s success depends on its ability to infer through other means, and on that front it totally succeeds. the transfiguration built up to by the first half makes great use of the unsettling atmosphere by bringing in a rumbling sound design reminiscent of Lynch, finding a stark contrast when the speakers erupt into The Teardrops’ toe-tapping ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love Again’. In a Letterboxd post, the director talks about how he would “spend at least 30% of the time on set DJing to build an environment” and this is absolutely evident in the rhythm of each scene.
The teen movie genre is one rife with clichés that the film plays with in its gentle set-up via close-ups on images of teenage rebellion, like cigarettes and rolled-up jeans; it is therefore all the more jarring when one of the characters, excited for the ceremony, drawls that “wow, being older is, like, really good.” This is not a film like Booksmart, where the leads have their set goals and want to make the most of the time they have together. Ham on Rye movingly explores what happens when things move on without this sense of resolution. The broken-backed structure works well with this, building up to the mystery in the middle with downplayed anticipation, and then examines the missed opportunities and malaise that set in afterwards.
In a skin-pricklingly strange scene after the ceremony, a montage of empty spots in the city at dusk is lit with only the crackling neon glow of street lamps. This twist into alienation is what makes the film so refreshing, as it shifts to focus on one particular character’s decisions and their fallout. There is a particularly painful phone-call where Haley and her parents are on the phone to her older brother, the conversation of non-sequiturs and misheard lines allowing the emotional core of the film’s concept to become clearer. It’s uncomfortable and sad, but the very idea of a film about growing up told so whole-heartedly from the interior of a group of teenagers is fascinating—and on the whole successful.
With the combination of intense melancholy and a whimsical edge that feels like the cinematic rendering of a Joanna Newsom album, Ham on Rye is a deeply bizarre meditation on the liminal space inhabited by adolescents. It is almost the definition of ‘not for everyone’, but for anyone willing to let go of narrative expectations for 80 minutes or so should give it a go. I guarantee you won’t see another film like it this year.
Ham on Rye is streaming now on MUBI.
Words by Max King
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