This week’s Sunday Night MUBI on FIELD OF STREAMS, brings to us Tyler Taormina’s incredible debut film
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If you’re new to MUBI, now’s the time to give a try. Their unique model presents a limited curated library, but every single film has significance. If you enter with an open mind, pressing play on literally any of their selections is likely to be an extremely rewarding experience… even if this edition of Sunday Night MUBI comes on a Monday morning.
The structure and shape of the “coming-of-age” film is very familiar to most longtime film viewers. The viewer is given a window into the lives of young people, on the cusp of some great turning point that in one way or another will determine their fate. Often times, the plot will center around a theme of escape, with the characters looking to leave their current existence for something greater. The potential for getting out, either of a situation or simply a geographical space, is at the heart of most of these narratives. The idea that if you could get away, everything simply would become perfection.
Ham on Rye, the feature debut from director/writer Tyler Taormina (now available for streaming on Mubi), takes this central conceit of the coming of age story and both explodes and implodes it. It is not hyperbole to say the film functions as a deconstruction and satire of not only the “coming of age” film, but in some ways the very concept of coming into adulthood, the process of stepping from one liminal space into the next. But Toarmina’s trick is to do all of this through suggestion, making a remarkably impressionistic film that is less concerned with telling a singular coming-of-age story so much as tapping into the anxiety and nervousness of growing into a new space in your life, and the regrets for choices not made.
The action, as it is, in Ham on Rye takes place in a nameless suburban town, and is populated by mostly nameless people. The film doesn’t ever stop to include you into the rules of the world, simply giving you that lens into the lived experience. What becomes clear through context is that an event is about to occur at Monty’s, the local deli that everyone agrees has the best food. (The food at Monty’s, for the record, looks fairly underwhelming; there is one hilarious bit where a teen is praising how Monty can get mustard and ketchup on one hot dog.) It is unclear to us, the viewer, what exactly happens at Monty’s, but one thing is clear to the young people of this town: going to Monty’s on this occasion is the determinant factor for the rest of their life. If things go right at Monty’s, the rest of their life is set.
The film’s structure at the start seems to suggest that getting to Monty’s and whatever significant event will happen there is the inevitable climax of the film. So it is all the more surprising when the totality of what happens at Monty’s is dealt with by the middle of the film, a movie that is not even 90 minutes long. In reality, the film is two acts: before Monty’s, and after. And while it would be a disservice to say what precisely happens at Monty’s, suffice to say that it is a fairly dramatic turn of events, and exploring the ramifications of it both elevate those moments and creates a striking, meditative second half.
Taormina’s cast, especially through the pre-Monty’s segment, is anchored by an expansive cast of teenagers. And his efforts to capture the jerky awkwardness of adolescent life shines through their performances. There are moments, especially in those key transitional moments in the middle, where the age of the actors hinders certain moments. But everything leading up to that moment is beautiful stilted, practiced and will feel painfully familiar to anyone who was ever an awkward teen. The practiced gestured, the high-minded philosophical conversations about he purpose of life, and is it in fact just “porking.” Very few of these characters have much in terms of story, many without even a name. But they are brimming with personality and truth that magnifies outward.
One of the few characters who does have a definable arc and story to tell is Haley (Haley Bodell), the one participant who seems to question the whole process of going to Monty’s, asking if it’s really necessary and isn’t all a bit weird? The concerns are brushed off by her two friends, as they have been preparing for this moment their entire life. But behind the eyes of many of the teens is the realization that they may not be prepared for this, that the ramifications of what is occurring may undo them. Haley says the quiet part out loud, and Ham on Rye is positively bursting with quiet parts.
The second half of the film, which is far bleeker and nastier than the unsettling but mostly amusing opening half, explores the ramification of Haley’s questioning, and how pushing against the structures of the communities we grow up in can ripple. After all, none of us choose what culture we are born into, what expectations may be placed upon us or what decisions will ultimately determine our fate. But the pain of those uncertainties, and the awkwardness of standing on that precipice, is what this film so expertly captures, as well as the bitter-sweet realization that where-ever you land, there is still life to be lived. Ham on Rye is exploring why we tell stories about youth escaping, and what that says about our own anxieties and our own need for escape. Finding peace and balance between the lives we have been given and the lives we choose forms of the spine of the film, and ultimately drives the viewer to reflect on their own moments that were their personal trips to Monty’s.
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