Based on the book by Joanna Rakoff, director/writer Philippe Falardeau’s My New York Year, also known as My Salinger Year, is set in mid-90s New York. While at first I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially after an initial ‘talk to camera’ opener, this is thankfully a curiously watchable film, and a lot of that comes down to the charisma of Margaret Qualley’s performance as Joanna, who leads from start to finish, and if you have a love of books, then even better.
In My New York Year, we follow Joanna (Qualley), who leaves grad school and sets off to NYC to live out her dream of sitting in cafes and writing for a living. While initially you’re concerned about the cliché here, this is quickly dispelled by Joanna’s own admittance, and awareness, of the narrative you’re expecting and that sets us up into a different style of story.
Looking to get any creatively linked work, and how we’ve all been there, she takes a position at a literary agency by basically lying but you can understand why she does. The job is an assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who runs an old-fashioned agency trying to stay away from computers and keeping everything in analogue form. Joanna’s role is to reply to the fan mail letters of one of their writers, who just happens to be J.D. Salinger.
At first, she follows the rules and replies using an extremely specific pre-written letter via typewriter but it’s not long before she finds herself personalising the letters back and, in turn, developing her own skills and feelings towards her writing, and the people she’s sending her responses to. While the central theme that interweaves everything is Salinger, this is also an ode to a love of writing, and it’s achieved with a welcome soft touch.
The key to everything is the sheer likeability of Qualley’s Joanne. She’s smart but cautious, and you never feel sorry for her, and nor does she ask for that, but I felt connected to something you’ve maybe tried or wanted in your life, and any creative, or dare I say romantic, would appreciate that aspect. Qualley has an essence of Kristen Stewart in her movements and style to begin with, this is a compliment, and over time grows more self-assured as she realises what she wants from her life, and who she’d like in it. In truth, like a good friend, you want to know if she’ll succeed. It’s not dreamer-level stuff though, there’s sharp humour and a fun, curious darkness to the comedy that lingers throughout.
Weaver’s Margaret is also excellent, and the lead duo make for a good, fascinating screen pairing. As the owner of the agency, she’s both to the point and in control of the world around her. She’s stamping her style on the business, and amusingly somewhat at war with incoming technology and keeps the office running with strength and fairness. Her relationships with Brian F. O’Byrne’s Hugh and Colm Feore’s Daniel are also filled with other stories we don’t know. This aspect gives the characters a deeper level, initially giving only a hint over how they know each other or of their history. Also keep an eye out for nice roles for Seána Kerslake, Hamza Haq and Douglas Booth, the latter playing Joanna’s somewhat obnoxious NY boyfriend.
My New York Year has great energy and a curious nature. While it might not be the deepest film you’ll ever see, Qualley’s a captivating lead, and you trust in her character’s decisions, even when she’s not sure of everything herself. There’s even a momentary dance sequence, that works in context, and everything is beautifully shot.
This is a welcomingly uncomplicated watch with a genuinely charming manner, with enough depth to keep its soul central and the ideas on display intelligently relevant.