With the flick of a match and the sound of a tuning guitar, Ham on Rye slowly eases us into its world. A dreamy, 90s inspired indie-pop tune then kicks in, immediately immersing us in an atmospheric haze, as a montage of bored sun-drenched faces and small objects fills up the screen. We get enveloped in an amalgamation of iconographic elements from the traditional American coming-of-age film – the bicycle rides at sunset, the poster-decorated bedrooms, the suburban backyards all being there — introducing an imaginary land where everything is suspended and held within these timeless aesthetic elements. This focus on details and mood reveals the film’s intentions right off the bat: it’s a film more interested in poetic observations and general feeling, rather than establishing strong characters and interpersonal dynamics.
Ham on Rye (no relation to the homonymous Bukowski novel), having premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier this year, and more recently making its presence in the Locarno Film Festival, marks the feature film debut of young director Tyler Taormina. In it, we see loose groups of teenagers making their way to a local deli, in an unnamed nowhere-town in the USA, for a rite of passage into adulthood, or, at least, into another stage of life. Throughout the first half, we follow these anonymous kids making their way to the desired spot. A series of plotless, meandering scenes ensue, as we alternate between conversations in different groups — all sharing the same sense feeling of languidness and teen ennui. The acting from the immense ensemble cast of mostly amateur actors is stiff and emotionless, but it works in evoking the boredom the young characters feel, trapped in this reality where they eventually feel forced to grow up.
The film gets increasingly surreal as it moves forward, just like the oneiric atmosphere established in the beginning hinted towards. The “ritual” itself, which can be compared to a school dance straight out of the mind of someone like David Lynch, marks a radical left turn to something way more blissful, yet eerily ghostly as the lazy afternoon sun disappears, and night sets in. The soundtrack, while diverse in terms of styles, goes a long way in installing this mood. Ranging from ethereal, melancholic ambient tracks, to classic country music, they all succeed in evoking the surreal in the most mundane of settings. By the time the day is over, and the teen characters face different fates, all there´s left is this quiet permanence in this small American town, where we´re reminded of the timelessness of the coming-of-age experience – an inevitable conclusion to a film so fixated in the typical American tradition.
Being a debut film, and a bold one at that, giving the film’s stylistic choices and oddball structural approach, it wears its influences very much on its sleeve. For the first half, it’s reminiscent of the “chit-chat” often present in some of Richard Linklater’s films (especially Dazed and Confused), albeit with a more absurdist flair to the scenes. It also seems to pull elements in its suburban aesthetic from Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, from the way the sunlight beams into the frame creating a washed-out mood, to the way some of the characters dress and behave – a distinct group of three girls all wearing white dresses certainly carry themselves with a similar melancholy as that of the female characters in Coppola´s film.
Ham on Rye is a somewhat of a kitschy experiment in coming-of-age tropes in American film, however, it works marvelously by the end as a cohesive, intriguing mood piece, even if it doesn’t have that much new to say in this genre. It’s never too self-serious in the creation of its whimsical atmosphere and positions Tyler Taormina as someone who can not only offer a satisfying portrait of a place but who can also handle a vast cast of performers, while never building something too weighty.