“My Salinger Year” is one of the best movies of 2021 so far, highlighted by yet another showcase performances from Margaret Qualley. She was the shining star of 2017’s sinfully overlooked “Novitiate”. And she sparkled in her scenes with Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.
In “Salinger”, Qualley plays 23-year old Joanna Rakoff. The screenplay is based on Rakoff’s real life experiences covered in her 2014 memoir (of the same name). In 1995, Rakoff, an aspiring poet, decided to leave grad school and her boyfriend behind in California and move to New York City. She gets a job at an old fashioned Manhattan literary agency, which represents several famous authors. At the top of the list is The Catcher in the Rye‘s mysterious J.D. Salinger.
As assistant to agency head Margaret (played by Sigourney Weaver), Rakoff is given specific instructions on what to do anytime Salinger calls from his secluded New Hampshire home. She’s also put in charge of dealing with the author’s never-ending stream of fan mail. (Basically, shred it all — since Salinger, or “Jerry” as he was commonly referred to around the office, stopped responding to letters in 1963). So, one of Joanna’s duties is to send generic, pre-written responses to the admirers. This doesn’t sit well with her.
But she’s becomes good at her job and well-liked in the office. And she may have a future as a literary agent. But Joanna doesn’t want a career representing writers — she wants to be a writer. This conflict is at the heart of the film — which has a big heart.
At first glance, “My Salinger Year” may seem like yet another variation on “The Devil Wears Prada” formula. But the high-energy, high-stakes, glitz and glam of NYC’s fashion world depicted in that 2006 Streep/Hathaway favorite is nowhere to be found. Here the pace is much slower and more introspective — reflecting the outdated atmosphere of The Agency, where dictaphones are still used and computers are not.
Qualley doesn’t hit a single false note. Rakoff is bubbly, ambitious and eager to succeed. But just below the surface she’s insecure, unsure and, seemingly, always on the verge of tears. Throughout the film she constantly questions her own actions and everyone else’s. You’ve likely known people like this in your life (I know I have). Qualley perfectly captures the reluctant apprentice’s internal struggle.
This is Weaver’s first non-cameo feature film appearance in nearly four years. After a string of tense characters in big action movies and TV series, it’s great to see her so at ease in a quieter, dramatic role.
The Salinger elements, including his phone conversations with Rakoff and plans for a late-in-life comeback are fascinating. Writer/director Philippe Falardeau treats all the material gently and earnestly. He also inserts an unexpected fantasy component that works shockingly well.
There’s a surprising amount of sadness and pain between the lines. The unspoken word plays a major role, specifically involving key supporting characters. At one point an abrupt twist serves as a somber dose of reality for young Joanna and us. Her relationship and housing struggles don’t provide the same emotional impact as the rest of the film, but they’re absolutely necessary to bind this narrative together.
There’s not much more I can put into words. Catch “My Salinger Year” yourself in theaters or on VOD. It’s a gem.
LCJ GRADE: A-
Running Time: 101 min.