Philippe Falardeau’s empathetic coming-of-age drama, My Salinger Year, which opens on VOD platforms and in selected theatres on March 5, unfolds in mid-1990s New York City as an aspiring writer struggles to find her voice.
The central character, Joanna (played by the bright and vivacious Margaret Qualley), is ambitious. She wants to write novels, travel the world, learn five languages and rise to the level of extraordinary. In the quest to achieve these lofty goals, she postpones her postgraduate studies at the University of California in Berkeley and decides to live in Manhattan, leaving her boyfriend lonely and adrift.
A published poet, she lands a position as a lowly assistant at a literary agency whose clients include the famous but reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger. She is hired by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a middle-aged, old-school, pre-digital type who immediately puts Joanna in her place.
In an imperious tone, Margaret informs Joanna that writers make the worst assistants and that there is no shortage of university graduates who would snap up her job. Marvellously portrayed by Weaver, Margaret is a fossil of sorts, claiming that computers are a “waste of time.”
Margaret assigns Joanna two tasks: to answer Salinger’s voluminous fan mail and to transcribe author’s tapes. As Salinger’s proxy, Joanna is at a disadvantage, never having read his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, as she confesses to her new boyfriend, Don (Douglas Booth).
In the meantime, she and Don, a budding novelist, rent a shabby flat which lacks even a kitchen sink, forcing them to wash dishes and pots and pans in the bathtub.
With the passage of time, Joanna glumly realizes that she has little more than a mundane secretarial job. In an attempt to liven things up, she breaks one of Margaret’s iron clad rules and starts a correspondence with one of Salinger’s admirers, a dreamy young man who appears periodically.
Joanna is also called upon to answer occasional telephone calls from Salinger himself. Salinger, who prefers to be called Jerry, shakes up the agency by announcing that he is sending in a new manuscript. This is big news, since Salinger is so unprolific.
Normally a remote figure, he begins taking a personal interest in Joanna whenever she answers one of his calls. “Poetry is food for the soul,” he says after learning she’s a poet. Advising her to write every day, he says, “Protect that sanctuary.”
On an assignment in Washington, Joanna comes tantalizingly close to meeting the great man, catching a glimpse of him in a cafe and watching him walk away from a building with his back to her.
As Joanna develops a rapport with Margaret, she discovers that her boss is fallible. Margaret has been in the book business forever, but fudges a chance to publish a famous writer’s latest children novel. To Joanna, who was nurtured on her novels, this is a missed opportunity.
Later, Joanna finds out that Margaret’s relationship with her romantic partner was complex, if not bizarre.
My Salinger Year is strongest when it focuses on Joanna’s apprenticeship at the agency, but it falters when it delves into her relationship with Don. On balance, though, Falardeau’s movie is quite appealing.