VIFF Review: ‘My Salinger Year’ is a fine coming of age tale

You have seen this story before. A young, bright-eyed person has to New York City to pursue their artistic dreams and gets waylaid in a job adjacent to their dreams in the meantime. It has been told so many times before that I doubt you could count them, so it takes a lot to stand out.

My Salinger Year, based on the memoir of the same name by Joanna Rakoff, has everything going for it. An up and comer in Margaret Qualley in the lead role. A major star in Sigourney Weaver in the main supporting role. It is set in a nostalgic period, recreated in exquisite detail. What a film like this needs to become truly great is that certain extra something, the Je ne sais quois that can make something add up to more than the sum of its parts.

This film does not have that. But that’s not an indictment because the film is perfectly lovely as it is, adding up to exactly what it is.

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Joana (Qualley) moved to New York City in 1995 with dreams of becoming a writer. Instead, she lands a job as an assistant to a high profile literary agent, Margaret (Weaver), not knowing that her new boss represents the notoriously reclusive JD Salinger. As he doesn’t want to receive any letters of any kind from fans, she is tasked with reading each one, shredding it, and then sending a form letter response.

The year goes as you would expect. Joana starts naive and timid, and Margaret overbearing and with high expectations. However, over time they grow to respect and admire one another, while at the same time, she builds a relationship with Salinger by sharing a few words with him each time he calls for Margaret.

The plot is, as stated earlier, one you have seen before. You may be able to guess what happens just based on the setup I have described here, but while that is an issue for some, it is the journey that counts, and the journey is fine.

Qualley, who you probably most recently saw in One Upon a Time in Hollywood, is good in her part. She executes each stage of the arc toward self-sufficiency, and her chemistry with Weaver is genuine. This is the first time I can remember seeing her in the lead, and she carries the film well; you can clearly tell she is going places.

Weaver leans into the overbearing boss role quite well, clearly going for that Meryl Streep / Devil Wears Prada energy. The character takes a while to become as compelling, but once a mid-movie reveals her to be much deeper than you assumed, it’s hard not to empathise with her.

Another supporting performance worth noting is Colm Feore, one of those Canadian character actor legends who routinely shows up and elevates whatever he is in. His part here is small, but he’s so warm-hearted and sweet, and every scene he appears in, he steals.

My Salinger Year has all the parts to add up to being a good movie, and it does so. Unfortunately, it falls short of being great, but that’s not a problem in my book. Not every film has to be a masterpiece, and good movies like this are precisely the type that you can watch on a lazy evening with no regrets.


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