' ' Cinema Romantico: Ham on Rye

Friday, January 22, 2021

Ham on Rye

No matter how many movies about teenage angst are made, there are always more, updating the formula to appeal to and comment on the current generation, like the recent “Spontaneous” and its literally exploding students evoking the very real terror of active shooters. “Ham on Rye”, on one hand, is entirely traditional. Its narrative, in so much as there is one, turns on a ceremony bridging the gap between adolescence and adulthood. On other hand, though, “Ham on Rye” is unlike anything you have ever seen, not so much dreaming up a whole new world as ever so slightly modifying the world in which we exist, recognizable but peculiar, as if it’s set on Earth 2 rather than Earth. If it will prompt myriad questions of logic, those queries should be discarded. Just as the queries one might pose about becoming an adult often prove futile in the face of, simply, going through it, “Ham on Rye” is best, simply, experienced, mirroring the sensation of one’s teenage years, just feeling your way through. 

As the movie opens, various cliques of kids are getting dressed in their grandparents’ clothes and heading off toward some ceremony described as the most important event of their lives. Each of these details sets “Ham and Rye’s” deliberately hazy tone, the former never fully explained, the latter not explained at all, leaving us in a state of limbo, like we can’t quite get a handle of exactly what’s happening. That is exacerbated by the mood. Though not an exact parallel for last year’s “Greener Grass”, “Ham on Rye’s” exacting vision and hyper-uneasy atmosphere are strikingly similar, rendered even more peculiar by dialogue seeming to foreshadow typical teenage rom com travails juxtaposed against incongruous images leaving an unsettling aftertaste: one of the boys sitting stricken in the grass, unable to move, his young friends hesitantly moving on as if they are leaving him behind on the battlefield.  

Their destination is a delicatessen called Monty’s, humorously underlining the arbitrary nature of any teenage ceremony in the first place, suggesting prom would function no less differently over sandwiches and potato salad than it would at a country club or in the gymnasium. That’s not to suggest the scene itself is humorous; if anything, it’s sincere, a stunning synthesis of nearly every teenage movie you’ve seen. It’s the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance lit like a scene from “The Virgin Suicides” with emphasis on dance moves that seem pulled from the utterly unique, spastic gyrations of Fogell from “Superbad.” As sweet as it is, though, it gradually turns dark. Trusting us, forgoing any exposition, director Tyler Taormina has the kids line up, like it’s the blacktop during gym class and kids are picking for the basketball or dodgeball teams. Gradually it becomes clear not everyone is destined to be picked, one girl running out of the diner in tears, while the rest of the kids move on, literally and figuratively, in a scene that might you dismiss if I clinically explained but will wholly believe as it happens on screen.

What happens is akin to a demarcation line, its rash of characters disappearing from screen, or most of them anyway, as a whole host of new characters several years older and heretofore not seen emerge. Their air is down-and-out, as is the movie’s, imbued with a low-key tension as the lush colors of the first half giving way to the black of night. If teenage movies are so often about reaching the cusp of adulthood and ascending, “Ham on Rye” is ultimately about those left behind, like the view has flipped and we are seeing what happens on the dark side of the moon, like coming out the other side of the star gate in “2001” to discover not a new beginning but a failure to launch.

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