The awkwardness of teenagedom is captured in an enigmatic coming-of-ager that seems to tell everything and nothing at once
In his feature debut, Ham on Rye, writer-director Tyler Taormina confronts the daunting pilgrimage from childhood to adulthood, a land of no return. Small-town teens gather at their local delicatessen for a bizarre ritual that determines their fate in life and while some succeed in escaping the nothingness of suburbia, others are doomed to remain forever. Ham on Rye speaks loudly to the relatable anxieties about the death of one’s childhood, though winds up tracing a fine line between joyful and jarring.
There aren’t really any fully-fledged main characters in this offbeat-indie – rather a melange of side characters, some of which are played by Hayley Bodell, Audrey Boos, and Gabriella Herrera, and who together seem to personify a single entity of adolescence, awkwardness, and anxiety. It's a fitting choice in a film that, in so many ways, captures the liminal space between everything and nothing.
Aesthetically, Ham on Rye is difficult to place, combining a sense of the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s to present a weird conglomerate of nostalgia that at once feels alien and yet so achingly familiar. Costumes, locations and set pieces are all reminiscent, as opposed to defining, of specific eras and it’s only towards the end of the film that we realise this is a story set in the present day via the appearance of a Swegway hoverboard.
Ham on Rye disguises itself as an oddball comedy, but underneath the absurd sheen lies something quite haunting – especially in the last thirty minutes. Scenes once bathed in pastel tones and sunlight are now shrouded in nighttime, lit only by neon advertisements and headlights. The mundanity of suburbia loses its candy-coloured gloss and begins to feel more like a no man’s land. The dregs of society, as if zombified, wander aimlessly with no direction, left behind to fend for themselves. Fully exposed are the damaging effects of not being able to live up to expectation.
It’s a film that’s perhaps a little too reliant on visual and thematic allusions to other films in the coming-of-age family – an opening scene of girls preening in wispy white dresses pays obvious homage to the sisters of The Virgin Suicides, sluggish teenage boys with long hair listen to music and aimlessly drive around à la Dazed and Confused, and the town is adrift with the sort of misfits one might find in a Wes Anderson film.
It’s difficult to gage where Taormina is headed on his own cinematic terms – especially with so few other credits to his name. Ham on Rye doesn’t quite succeed in promoting its director as one to watch, but offers just enough intrigue that fans of the genre will find there's still plenty to chew on.
Ham on Rye is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch