'My Salinger Year': Film Review | Berlin 2020

@micro-scope
Could use an edit.

Canadian director Philippe Falardeau directs this year's Berlinale opener, which stars Margaret Qualley as the assistant to a high-powered literary agent played by Sigourney Weaver.

A young secretary and aspiring writer's coming of age in the New York literary world of the 1990s is the subject of My Salinger Year, based on the successful 2014 memoir by Joanna Rakoff.

French-Canadian writer-director Philippe Falardeau, whose Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar and who also directed the Reese Witherspoon vehicle The Good Lie, tackles the material with more enthusiasm than efficiency, as his protagonist has to figure out what she wants out of life on both the professional and private fronts while dealing with all the fan mail of the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger at an old-school literary agency.

Often more jocular than insightful or touching, the film has an emotional temperature that doesn't begin to rise until very late into the proceedings and then mostly thanks to a confrontation between Margaret Qualley's ingenue and her imperious boss, played with lip-smacking verve by Sigourney Weaver.

My Salinger Year is a surprising choice for the opening-night slot of Carlo Chatrian's first Berlinale, mainly because it feels like a very Kosslickian pick that suggests continuity and a taste for middlebrow fare more than innovation. It brings to mind respectable but unmemorable films like Snow Cake, the 2006 Berlin opener that was also a small, English-language Canadian feature that starred Sigourney Weaver.

In terms of distribution, Salinger is a complicated sell, as its target audience isn't clear. It's a story about a young professional's coming-of-age but its pre-internet setting and handsome but very classical packaging will more likely appeal to older and more staid art house patrons.

The dark-haired, open-faced Joanna (Qualley) arrives in New York in the fall of 1995, putting a semester at Berkeley — and the boyfriend (Hamza Haq) that goes with it — on hold indefinitely. She wants to "live in a cheap apartment and write in cafes," she informs the audience in a mix of direct-to-camera confessions and voiceover. Thankfully, Qualley gives Joanna a knowing intonation that suggests that she's intelligent enough to see that these are reductive and cliched romantic ideals rather than a realistic and cheery prospect for the future.

Joanna manages to be hired as an assistant at the literary agency of Margaret (Weaver), a hard-balling agent with a deep-rooted distrust of newfangled technology but also with very privileged relationships with some of the greatest English-language writers, including "Jerry" Salinger. In one of the film's many moments of light comedy, Joanna is given a stack of standard answers to the different kinds of letters they receive for Salinger at the agency, from fan mail to requests for lectures. The replies were all written once by Jerry in 1963 and haven't changed a word since.

One of Falardeau's cinematic tricks literally gives some of the letter writers a face and a voice. This works quite well, with one rather intense young man (Quebec "It Boy" Theodore Pellerin, On Becoming a God in Central Florida) popping up several times. His appearances serve as a reminder of the impact of great writing on readers while allowing something of a dialogue between Joanna's job duties and her own evolving feelings about her literary aspirations and amorous life with a new boyfriend (Douglas Booth). However, there's a nagging sense that Falardeau doesn't want to overdose on this rather neat conceit. This is a shame, since Joanna's inner turmoil and growth finally remain more hinted at than really felt or seen.

The main issue with the film's screenplay, written by the director, is that it is trying to cover too much ground and yet be tonally light on its feet. It wants to say something about the art vs. commerce debate in the literary world; people's private lives vs. their professional ones; the analog past vs. the encroaching digital age; and the way in which the ever popular Salinger (Tim Post, mostly seen as a silhouette), who hadn't published anything for decades, was an odd duck in the publishing industry in the 1990s. The latter is in fact the setup for an underdeveloped subplot about Salinger's (later aborted) attempt to publish a 1965 New Yorker story in book form in the 1990s, which Falardeau hurries through with a bullet-points-style approach. That particular story feels like something so complex and fascinating it could have been its own movie.

Indeed, all these different issues, which are in and of themselves interesting and worth exploring, tend to overwhelm the quest of Joanna to come into her own and find her bearings in a changing industry and world. Though she's the protagonist, her development occasionally takes a back seat to other matters and there's little Qualley — who is completely believable as a messy young human being muddling through her first attempts at work and love — can do about it.

Weaver, who gets a big scene toward the end in which she breaks the illusion of a perfectly in-charge power agent, delivers a more controlled performance as an older, hardened pro who has learned that vulnerability doesn't pay — unless it's on the pages of her next best-seller.

Production and costume design are slightly heightened to highlight the period nature of the piece, with Weaver's outfits (co-credited to Ann Roth with overall costume designer Patricia McNeil) especially successful in suggesting what kind of character she is. Though shot on location in Montreal, the film very successfully feels like a New York story pur sang, while Martin Leon's jazzy score highlights the playful yet somewhat superficial nature of the proceedings.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Opener, Berlinale Special)
Production companies: micro_scope, Parallel Pictures, Memento
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Seana Kerslake, Brian F. O'Byrne, Colm Feore
Writer-Director: Philippe Falardeau, screenplay based on the book by Joanna Rakoff
Producers: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
Executive producers: Philippe Falardeau, Joanna Rakoff, Mary Jane Skalski, Hussain Amarshi, Celine Haddad, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed
Cinematography: Sara Mishara
Production design: Elise de Blois
Costume design: Patricia McNeil
Editing: Mary Finlay
Music: Martin Leon
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Sales: Memento/UTA

In English
No rating, 101 minutes