My New York Year (2020) – Film Review

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Adapted by the synonymous 1994 memoir, My Salinger Year (AKA My New York Year) is the latest film by French-Canadian Philippe Falardeau. Set in 1995, the film tells the story of aspiring writer Joanna Rackoff (Margaret Qualley) and her time working for the literary agent of the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger.  

When we first meet Joanna, she is lulled into the buzz of New York to become a writer, until reality bursts her bubble and drives her to find a job at a leading literary agency headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver). Given her personal sacrifice in leaving California and her musician boyfriend Karl (Hamza Haq), there is a subtle sense of doubt and guilt about being unable to fully commit to her ambitions. She also begins to suffer from the detachment from her work and writing in general, especially as she solely deals with dictations and destroying mail sent by Salinger’s fans, who are sent a generic and somewhat emotionless reply.

Throughout the film, Falardeau ensures that JD Salinger is practically a ghost. Joanna, his key contact at the agency, has not read any of his books and he is referred to as ‘Jerry’ by the staff, who also fondly talk about his quirks and tall tales. However, we don’t see his face on-screen or have a visual connection, which not only enhances the mystique of the author. Along with the non-personal replies to his letter, the narrative keeps Salinger out of reach from not only his fans and Joanna but also the audience.

As for our doe-eyed protagonist, her head is firmly in the clouds. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Joanna consistently sees an emotive connection to her new life. She struggles to connect with her new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth) and engaged friend Jenny (Seána Kerslake), which causes her to delve into Salinger’s fan mail. This sets her on a journey of self-discovery but there is no clear direction, which drags the mundane narrative and uninspiring dialogue. In addition, the story briefly touches upon mental health through the notoriety of The Catcher in the Rye and Daniel’s personal life but these instances are unfortunately brushed aside as passing anecdotes to refocus on Joanna.

Instead, My New York Year becomes a visually nostalgic journey. At the cusp of the digital age, the sight of cramped apartments, poetry nights, a melee of aspiring writers and a 1970s-style office that favours typewriters over computers with dial-up modems encapsulate Falardeau’s vision of 1995 New York. The resulting combination exudes a bohemian sense of style that complements the story’s whimsical elements and Martin León’s stunning score.

While Qualley delivers a charming performance, eclectic performances from Booth and Colm Feore as Daniel help diversify My New York Year‘s emotional tone while Weaver’s Margaret presents herself as the Miranda Priestley of the literary world. Quietly commanding and brusque, she exudes an authority that prevents her from being emotional to her staff. This facade slowly slips until a tender scene with Joanna causes her to break down, as she recounts her encounter with an emerging author in her youth that changed her life.

Overall, My New York Year is visually lovely with Qualley in an endearing lead performance, but its aloof tone prevents it from truly capturing its audience.

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

Director: Philippe Falardeau
Stars: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Seána Kerslake, Colm Feore, Brían F. O’Byrne
Runtime: 101 minutes
Country: USA

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