RELEASE DATE: October 14, 2016
DIRECTOR:James Steven Sadwith
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUNTIME: 95 minutes
The Catcher in the Rye has ascended to the upper echelons of American literature throughout its six decades of existence, yet J. D. Salinger, the book’s author, has been notorious for his reclusivity – he ceased writing for publishers in the 1960s and held steadfastly to his self-imposed retirement.
He would never grant an interview, respond to a query or consider licensing one of his works to be made into a play, a movie or anything else. Salinger never stopped writing altogether, but it seems that not even death itself has allowed his later works to see the light of day.
Those who have met with Salinger, especially the individuals who did not have a pre-existing personal relationship with him, are often subject to great interest. Each case is a story of its own. Coming Through the Rye knows this, and it is a movie that is based around that conceit.
Set in 1969, the film follows Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff), a 17-year-old student at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. His life there is a living hell, and he feels his only solace is Salinger’s novel, as well as the stage adaptation of it that he has been working on.
Jamie’s goal is to have the play produced. He will play Holden, of course, as he feels he connects with the character in a deep, devoted way. However, the problem is retrieving Salinger’s permission or, perhaps, just getting in contact with him to begin with. All Jamie knows is the town that he has to get to, which is several states away. He’ll need a ride.
Eventually, he convinces DeeDee (Stefania Owen), a girl from a nearby high school, to drive him up to New Hampshire. The long hours spent on the road will allow the two plenty of time to reflect, to grow and face the future. The primary goal for this specific trip may be clearly defined, but deep within Jamie’s mind, it represents so much more.
They say “write what you know,” and James Sadwith certainly seems to have taken this advice to heart while penning the screenplay for Coming Through the Rye. The film, he has said, is based off of a personal experience, of which the broadest details (at least) are reflected onscreen.
The movie has a reverence for the past and for the power of a memory brought up from long ago. A wry demeanor runs throughout, demonstrable a number of times early on when Jamie turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly. However, this storytelling tool is abandoned after a certain point in the first act, and one questions its relevance to the story and if it served any purpose beyond rushing along a bit of exposition.
As Sadwith dons his director hat to bring his writing to the screen, he seems to trend toward the tropes of the genre. He relishes in fourth-wall breaking but also can’t resist drifting over an anachronistic soundtrack of plucky compositions or emotionally potent scenes that suffer from a cookie-cutter treatment. (In one example, when two characters share their first kiss, you know every line of dialogue they will say because you’ve heard it all before. Each moment is clearly telegraphed.)
But his base desire to tell this story outweighs many of the stylistic mistakes made along the way. In addition, it’s hard to deny the strength of Alex Wolff’s performance as Jamie. He is our window to the story, and Wolff’s determined, buzzing interpretation effectively captures the single-minded, driving forces within our protagonist’s mind.
It’s this charged-yet-warm response that seems to be what Sadwith is aiming for. This is apparent the visual rhetoric he uses, with memorable scenes set in an open field during magic hour or on bucolic country roads. There’s a sharp edge in Coming Through the Rye, there to remind us of the disappointment that inevitably comes from having a one-track mind like Jamie’s. The film never fails to teach him a lesson.
More often than not, it feels like Sadwith is addressing a fictionalized version of his younger self. And yes, that can lead to a bit of sparse navel-gazing. It emerges in the form of excessive character profiling and an overly conciliatory switch between a tone of sardonic retrospect and one of sugary sentimentality, but there’s a crackling fire underneath that keeps it all moving along.