Ham on Rye is a welcome departure from the typical trappings of a coming-of-age film.
Coming-of-age narratives make up a significant proportion of contemporary independent cinema, and by extension the titles that an ever-growing number of Gen Zs and even millennials flock to. It is considerably rare, however, to witness such narratives boldly distill the usual thematic suspects of their genre — overwhelming nostalgia, pubescent sexual attraction, far-flung ambitions — into tone-heavy canvases more integral to the film than its plot specifics. In the case of Ham on Rye, the debut feature of Tyler Taormina, narrative is deliberately sidelined from the get-go, abstracted in order to focus on an adolescent milieu at once brazenly generic and poignantly specific. Shot over just two weeks on a shoestring budget, it impressively portrays the coming of age in a fictional American suburb; with little emphasis on naturalism, the film evokes an uncanny fever-dream state, languid and dazed, on the cusp of life-changing revelation eternally deferred.
Over the course of a single day, several high-school students converge upon Monty’s, a local deli where an annual rite of passage is to take place at sunset. In between long walks through rows of immaculate housing and bites of sandwiches (“ham on rye”) at Monty’s, they recite lines of dialogue stereotypical of banal teen flicks — one group muses over the higher purpose of “porking”; another contends with life in the countryside — but issued with more endearing earnesty than deadpan cynicism. Conversations surface and fade, as the shots linger on each group of students for no longer than a couple of minutes each time. Before long, everyone in attendance at Monty’s proceeds to the ritual: a mysterious and vaguely menacing coupling between opposite genders, initiated by the male and determined by the female’s thumbs-up or -down. Those who form couples are last seen walking towards the twilight, their silhouettes blinking out of sight.
Those who remain form the subjects of Ham on Rye’s nocturnal second half, languishing and huddling around fires and empty parking lots in varying degrees of stupor and ennui. The wandering souls of this eternal night include one Haley, a girl we see earlier on with her girlfriends who, after their ascension into the dusk, leave behind only voicemail recordings and unanswered doorbells. Like her, we are not privy to what lies beyond the cloistered world of adolescence and all the promises of the future; Taormina’s goal, insofar as he has one, is simply to present the transition as a liminal point not unlike death, before which nostalgia for youthful pining must yield. Some never make the transition, and repeat their days, listlessly and in limbo.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | October 2020.