A lot can happen in a year, especially when you’re young.
Directed by Philippe Falardeau, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age tale of Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who decides to skip graduate school in order to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. In order to make ends meet, she takes a job as an assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a prominent New York City agent who clings to the way things used to be, whether it’s typewriters or three-martini lunches. Of all her clients, her most high profile is reclusive author J.D. Salinger and Joanna is tasked with processing his continuous stream of fan mail. Working long hours and living in a sink-less apartment with her socialist boyfriend (Douglas Booth), Joanna finds herself torn between her calling as a writer and living someone else’s dream for her career.
Known for such stories such as Monsieur Lazhar and The Good Lie, Falardeau understands how to create an arc for his characters. Adapted from the memoirs of the real Joanna Rakoff, Falardeau manages to seamlessly blend Rakoff’s journey with his own dramatic additions in ways that feels genuine to the time and his characters. This is not a story with any particularly flashy events like car crashes or dire secrets to be revealed to drive the narrative. Instead, Salinger feels more akin to viewing a slice of a young woman’s life. This sense of authenticity is also in part due to some wonderful work by Qualley, who feels present in the role of Joanna. Her charm and humility bring out the humanity in the impetuous and ambitious young woman as she attempts to make her dreams come true.
Though he never fully appears onscreen, Salinger looms largely throughout the film. Keeping his face hidden, Falardeau puts greater emphasis on the words of someone who has left an indelible mark on American literature than on the man himself. It’s interesting to note that, by shrouding his appearance in mystery, Falardeau keeps his audience from becoming too preoccupied with the Salinger’s personality or identity. There’s no climactic dinner with Salinger or long-winded monologues. Rather, Falardeau simply allows his legacy to hang like a shadow over the characters and their motivations. As a result, Salinger (or ‘Jerry’) becomes more than an icon or personal hero within the film.
He becomes an idea.
Without properly personifying his character, Falardeau lets Salinger’s voice take centre stage in a way that highlights the power of his words. As Joanna reads letter after letter from fans who identify with his work, the viewer sees the impact that his writing has had for generations of people who are looking to feel valued and heard. Their insistence that Salinger receive their letters stems not only out of mere fandom but from a need to feel validated from someone that they believe understands them.
Even Joanna, who has never read Salinger’s work, dreams of being ‘like him’. Not ‘be like him’ in the traditional sense, mind you. (After all, she has barely spoken with the man.) To her, the iconic writer represents someone who has powerfully contributed to popular culture in a way that helped others and changed lives. With Salinger’s example in view, she believes that she can be extraordinary.
To her, he represents a calling.
In this way, Falardeau’s creative use of ‘the man’ helps magnify the myth of Salinger. For his readers and fans, the value of Salinger’s voice takes on a life of its own and creates space for them to understand and translate their own experiences. His writing cuts through the souls of his readers in ways that other authors seem unable to do. In My Salinger Year, Falardeau understands the importance and power that his words carry but thankfully doesn’t end the film there. While it could be argued that Salinger himself is almost deified throughout the film, the best part of Falardeau’s work is that it also encourages others to do the same for the next generation.
To hear our conversation with director Philippe Falardeau, click here.
My Salinger Year is in select theatres and on VOD on Friday, March 5th, 2021.