▶︎ Ham on Rye is streaming on Mubi.
“Do you know what it’s like to be one of the lucky ones?” sings the John Peel-approved Australian outfit Even As We Speak over the opening credits of the baffling and seductive Ham on Rye. This is Blue Eyes Deceiving Me, one of several chiming pop songs (another is Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love by the 1960s girl group The Teardrops) on the soundtrack. These numbers break ecstatically through a dreamy score drawn from the back catalogue of the German New Age composer Deuter, who favours a haunting, elegiac flute.
The tension between those modes of music, one jubilantly optimistic, the other plangent and pastoral, is reflected in the movie’s structure. For its first half, it pursues an answer to the question posed in that opening song, before switching tack with a narrative rupture reminiscent of 3 Women (1977), Lost Highway (1997) and Tropical Malady (2004).
When those “lucky ones” – American teenagers who have paired off during a ritualistic prom-like ceremony held at Monty’s delicatessen – stroll off into the sunset, they are removed from the screen either with a low-tech optical wipe, which recalls the effect used for the transporter device on the original Star Trek show, or one of a series of ghostly dissolves. With the lovers apparently spirited to another dimension, the film throws in its lot with the left-behinds, the burn-outs, the also-rans. A sadder or more scathing vision of social and biological imperative there hasn’t been since The Lobster (2015).
From the outset, faint notes of discord indicate that this portrait of American adolescence and its attendant rituals will not conform to the cinema of John Hughes, even if at times the aesthetic suggests otherwise. Just as the score and the structure embody submerged conflict, so the cinematographer Carson Lund see-saws between the pale pinks of Hughes’s milieu and the macabre, starkly lit tableaux of the photographer Gregory Crewdson, whose work was a defining influence on David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014). In a scene of three teenage girls sitting in dappled sunlight in cream-coloured dresses, there is a hint also of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), another film about youngsters who become idealised when they disappear mysteriously.
Even before the explicitly melancholic second half, the details as the teenagers prepare for their big night are just off-kilter enough to excite our trepidation. Not only are the clothes anachronistic (lace for some of the girls, the odd velvet jacket or pair of beige slacks among the boys), they don’t even fit. It’s unclear also when the movie is set. The director Tyler Taormina is parsimonious with details that could harness the events to a specific era, just as Mitchell was in It Follows and his debut The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), the latter echoed strongly here. (Myth had its own forerunner to Monty’s in the form of the Make-out Maze, where hormonal youngsters conducted themselves with genteel decorum.)
Monty’s bears the slogan “Relishing the moment since 1952”, and Taormina’s movie has a timelessness about it which suggests that several decades have been concertinaed into one. A 1960s vibe persists right up to the jolting glimpse of an ATM. A mobile phone makes an appearance nearly an hour into the film. A visual joke, in which three figures who appear to be gliding across an empty car park at night are shown in fact to be riding Segway-style hoverboards, places the action no earlier than 2016.
Time is confusingly scrambled in a minute-by-minute sense, too. The film begins with a children’s birthday bash in a sunny park where a firecracker is being lit, only for a slow fade to deprive us of the big bang, putting everything that follows effectively in limbo. As different groups of teenage friends make their way to Monty’s, we see a boy still in bed, oversleeping obliviously. His clock reads 9:13, yet this can’t be the morning, since the action has already been underway for hours, and nor can it be the evening, with daylight still set to persist for some time. (That lad turns up later, staring ruefully into space along with others who missed the boat to adulthood.)
What Lund, Taormina and his co-writer Eric Berger have created between them is a film that exists in a fleeting suspended moment – perhaps the same one that Monty’s has been relishing since 1952 – just like the dream that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has in Before Sunset (2004) of a novel in which the action is restricted to the duration of a pop song. Everything in Ham on Rye seems to occur between the lighting of the firecracker at the start of the film and its explosion in the final seconds.
Perhaps the unmoored feeling of Ham on Rye is down to the use of mood to guide narrative and character, rather than vice versa. What little plot there is emerges out of the provisional emotional landscape typical of late adolescence, where life-changing decisions are forced upon people who are in no fit state to make them. Haley (Haley Bodell), the one member of the group to question the rituals at Monty’s, flees the dance when she isn’t picked, and pays the price for her apostasy by being left wandering the Brigadoon-esque streets in the wee small hours. A few years older than her is Sloan (Cole Devine), rejected years earlier and still sore about it. Now he drives aimlessly around, stopping off at a bleak campfire shindig which offers a depressive mirror-image of the exalted festivities at the deli.
The circular narrative delivering Haley back to the first scene in the park offers either hope (a return to the drawing board) or compulsion (past errors doomed to be repeated). For all that the picture’s dreaminess makes Sofia Coppola look like a social realist, there is brutality here, even callousness. Parents parade their neuroses under cover of pep talks: “Don’t mess it up!” shouts one father aggressively as he dispatches his son to the dance. The mother of another child is so ashamed when a foot injury causes him to miss out that she pushes his sleeping body in a wheelchair to an empty parking lot and abandons him there. Exactly as one of the teenagers predicted, it has turned out to be “a day we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives”. And quite possibly a film, too.
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.