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Film review: My Salinger Year

Film & TV

Sigourney Weaver steals the limelight in this beautifully shot adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s best-selling memoir about her year working in New York for JD Salinger’s literary agent.

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Canadian writer-director Philippe Falardeau (director of Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar) has adapted Rakoff’s coming-of-age memoir with a focus on cinematography and ’90s nostalgia in this film that captures New York and the publishing world on the cusp of the digital age.

Intelligent but naïve, Joanna (Margaret Qualley) lands in New York in 1995 full of romantic dreams of a literary life, putting both her studies at Berkeley and her boyfriend (Hamza Haq) on hold.

She quickly falls into an almost implausibly blissful bohemian lifestyle – crashing with a friend (Seána Kerslake) before moving in with an aspiring writer she meets in a socialist bookstore (Douglas Booth). She also lands a dream entry-level job in the publishing world – working as an assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), an old-school literary agent who represents some of the most significant authors of the 20th century.

Margaret (masterfully played by Weaver) is a complicated, multi-layered professional who, having risen to the top of her field in an analog world, harbours deep misgivings about such newfangled technology as the internet and email.

Alongside needing to master the quirks of using a typewriter and dictaphone, Joanna finds herself responsible for dealing with the fan mail generated by the agency’s star client, JD Salinger. Salinger is notoriously reclusive and delegates the task of dealing with the piles of letters sent to him each week to his literary agency. Joanna is instructed to reply to each letter with a standard response (originally penned by “Jerry” Salinger in 1963) before shredding the correspondence.

But the letters move Joanna, and the voices of Salinger’s readers prompt one of the highlights of the film. Falardeau gives various letter writers a face and a voice, scattering the narrative with small scenes in which the readers dictate their letters.  These vignettes serve as potent reminders of the impact literature can have on readers’ lives. They also cleverly emphasise an aspect of the story which is relatively low-key – Joanna’s yearning to be a writer rather than working on the periphery of the literary world.

My Salinger Year looks beautiful – until reading the credits, this reviewer didn’t realise it was shot in Montreal rather than in New York. The costume and set design are delightful and work to heighten the nostalgic 1990s atmosphere, skilfully reinforcing the theme of an analogue world about to be overthrown by the digital age.

While the film is a relatively close adaptation of the events of Rakoff’s memoir, it depicts Joanna as directionless and almost insipid, swept along by life rather than knowing where her own path lies. The emotional terrain of the book is far more complicated and profound, the film leaving Joanna’s inner turmoil and ultimate growth more hinted at than convincingly translated onto the screen.

This film will appeal to viewers who love immersion in New York stories and insights into the literary world, but fans of Rakoff’s bestseller may find the screen version of story they remember a little muted.

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