Ham on Rye takes a genre as old as time and adds a new and unique direction to it, marking director Tyler Taormina as one to watch.
For the opening hour or so of Ham on Rye, it plays out like a classic high school film. Fresh-faced teenagers dress up for what you assume will be some kind of prom or dance. They discuss insignificant, teenage things, listen to loud music and pose awkwardly for pictures taken by proud parents. Tyler Taormina, directing his first feature film, knows this formula is not enough, not at a point of cinema where we have seen countless variations on the coming-of-age drama; there are classics like Dazed and Confused (1993) and The Breakfast Club (1985), and more recent additions with different angles such as Eighth Grade (2018) and Rocks (2019). Taormina knows the genre is bloated, and knows any new addition needs to add something fresh. Thankfully, Ham on Rye does this, morphing after its generic but enjoyable opening section into something poignant, haunting and ultimately very refreshing.
Most of the teenage characters in Ham on Rye are eager to reach their destination – that is, the local delicatessen called Monty’s. The most reluctant and sceptical is Haley (newcomer Haley Bodell) who questions the bizarre rituals that await them all there. The rituals that await are a mixture of the expected and the unexpected; the teenagers boogie to music in a particularly delightful scene that captures the awkwardness of high school dances perfectly, but also partake in a bizarre process of standing in a circle and flicking a thumbs up or thumbs down at the people opposite, assumedly in a romantic coupling. These commentaries on teenage angst and romance are nothing particularly new, but they are still handled assuredly by Taormina and speak to the joys and the tribulations of growing up.
The direction Ham on Rye takes after these rituals of the deli is hugely refreshing. The less said the better, but Taormina and Eric Berger’s screenplay transforms into a powerful meditation on growing up and the intersection of childhood with adulthood. It remains ambiguous, which might frustrate some, but the ambiguity lends itself to the complexities of life quite brilliantly. It is an almost wordless final 30 minutes, with hazy shots of American suburbia by DP Carson Lund interjected with meditative music from old albums by Deuter, a German new age musician. There is a beautifully haunting quality to it all; Ham on Rye intrigues and seduces the audience and gives us more questions than answers in a surprisingly philosophical way.
Ham on Rye‘s screenplay is not without its faults. There are comedic moments early on in the film which don’t quite land and the naturalism of some of the teenage conversations doesn’t always feel tangible. The acting, too, is rather hit-and-miss, although this is understandable, considering the large bulk of the cast are only just starting their careers. The screenplay opts to take a wider look at all of the characters and their experiences, which works in many ways but does cause some of the emotional weight to be lacking. A particular standout is Cole Devine as Sloan, a delicatessen worker in his early 20s who watches the teenagers from behind the counter with an intriguing concern. He seems frustrated at his life, working in the deli for a boss who doesn’t respect him and cruising around the streets at night with his stoner friends, and it is heavily implied he has been through these same rituals before. There is a cyclical nature to his life and a strong feeling of being stuck in a rut. Devine captures this passive boredom with great skill and is a shining light from the large cast.
Ham on Rye remains ambiguous and delicately out-of-reach right through to the end. Credit must go to Taormina for his successful blend of styles, fusing high school feelings in the vein of Richard Linklater with a surreal touch in the mould of David Lynch. There is a poetic lyricism to the inconclusive conclusion of Ham on Rye which ensures it remains resonant. Coming-of-age dramas are a long-standing part of cinema and on the basis of this new addition, it is by no means a tired genre yet.