Reviewed by John DeFore
Promotional materials bill Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye (2019) as a “coming-of-age comedy,” comparing it to Dazed and Confused and John Hughes films. That’s as misleading as calling Eraserhead a reluctant-groom rom-com. But what other shorthand would you use for this strange, atmospheric work, which is 100 percent not a comedy but does share a spiritual connection — refracted through art-film aesthetics and anomie — with the aforementioned landmarks? Quiet and carefully made but cryptic, it relies on the viewer to complete its metaphors. To most patient eyes, it will look like a gentle ode to those who seemed part of the crowd in high school, then simply didn’t transform into the kind of adults their peers chose to be.
It’s also about the inherent strangeness of rituals like the prom, though the prom is not what’s about to unfold here, and few participants seem to think it’s very strange. The first part of the picture bounces around in an unnamed town (it was shot in the San Fernando Valley) that is dubiously situated in time: We see cellphones only a few times, and nothing about costumes, hair or background music roots us firmly in the present. Viewers will likely feel similarly connected to the characters whether they graduated high school in the ’60s or last spring.
Though calling them characters is a bit of a stretch. In a varied ensemble of more than a hundred (many of them nonactors), just a few of them get names, and only a few more get to say or do enough things to project any kind of identity beyond their appearance. A few clumps of friends are slowly making their way to the night’s festivities (why are they practically all on foot?), being told to make the most of the big night by parents while occasionally expressing some ambivalence about attending.
We’ll come to identify most with Haley (Haley Bodell), a mild-mannered girl who, like her two friends (Audrey Boos and Gabriella Herrara), is more dressed for a conventional school dance than most attendees. But what kind of dance is this? It’s held at a local sandwich shop called Monty’s, and begins with everyone dining quietly. Then tables are cleared, and a kind of free-form movement begins, with awkward teens trying out idiosyncratic dances. Even the oddest moves seem welcome.
Then the ba-boom of a Phil Spector-ish anthem kicks in (by a ’60s girl group called The Teardrops), and things get serious. Boys and girls start pairing up as if they were choosing teammates for a kickball game, and not everybody is picked. Though Haley’s one of the prettier girls here and has no apparent social shortcomings, she’s still unchosen as the room empties out. She flees.
And with the exception of a couple of surprising mood changes on the dance floor and off, that’s about all in the film you could describe as a plot. The rest of the movie wanders among townsfolk later that night, fixing our gaze on empty strip malls and loose social gatherings. The air is often dead, even when people are ostensibly being social: Asking a question or making an observation is no guarantee anyone will say anything in reply. The mood is now fairly forlorn, best embodied by Sloan (Cole Devine), a 20-something cook at Monty’s who’s mourning some kind of loss. The specifics are never explained, but we suspect that some years ago, he was in Haley’s shoes.
Weren’t most of us? In a mainstream teen film, that sense of social abandonment is a unifier, redeemed in one way or another with the promise that life has something better in store. Ham on Rye makes no such assurances — which of course makes it more honest, even if its oblique lessons will be heard by a tiny, tiny fraction of the number who navigated adolescence by the compass of John Hughes.
Review courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter