Every American city is different, but our suburbs are all alike in their unhappiness. The geographical location in Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye (2019) is unimportant. We don’t seem to be in a specific region. The houses all look the same and there’s no sports logos. License plates are obscured. Accents wander into a conversation and leave just as casually. We’re in Everytown.
The ostensible plot here is the last day of school. A trio of pretty girls in white ethereal dresses. A ragtag group of misfit kids. No one’s in a rush. Everyone’s shuffling towards what feels like inevitability. Today, the only thing on everyone’s mind is a ritual to be performed later in the day at the local delicatessen. The name of the shop is Monty’s, a name which is uttered fanatically, repeated like a prayer on everyone’s lips.
The ritual is the processional carrying of a ham on rye sandwich from the counter, followed by a dance under a glowing disco ball in the back room. These are intentionally absurd acts meant to emphasize the somewhat arbitrary nature of rituals as it’s not always their result that’s important, but rather the process of carrying them out. The lucky ones will pass through the mantle, having earned their departure through the tribute of their participation. Those who overlook or eschew the local customs give offense and must suffer for their sins.
We see groups of kids literally wiped from the frame. Haley (Haley Bodell), part of the trio, departs in a defiant huff when she witnesses the rejection of a classmate when it’s time for everyone to pick dance partners. She will later discover her friends have left town without saying goodbye and won’t return her phone calls. One unfortunate boy, slowed by his crutches, doesn’t make it to Monty’s on time and misses everything. We see him later in an awkward scene with his mother, eating takeout on a tray while she looks on in disdain. Afterwards, she abandons him at a truck stop.
Hometowns are often depicted as vortexes of gravity. Hardscrabble cities and decrepit slums are yawning chasms to be clawed out of with bare hands and a steely resolve. In the suburbs, it’s a silk veil to be passed through. Some people miss their turn because they’re drawing a line in the sand for their ideals and for others it’s just plain old bad luck. The point here is that it doesn’t really matter why since they’re never going to get another chance at it again anyways. Fitzgerald was right––American lives have no second acts.
There’s a gathering in a vacant lot, a post-apocalyptic looking assembly for those who have been left behind. There are fires surrounded by huddled groups of nomads. The lights here aren’t meant to be pretty––the fire is for warmth, not occasion. A group of meatheads arrive in the same kind of flashy looking car I saw everywhere growing up in the suburbs. One of them spews stoner observations that plays for a laugh in the trailer but in the movie it feels more tragic: Here’s a guy who never quite figured it out and his cheesy car is all he’s got. Another group arrives on modern self balancing scooters, which weren’t invented until 2013 but somehow look both out of place and right at home next to the car. There are a lot of smokers and we see a bright blue tip of an e-cigarette cut through the smoke. Same shit, different ride.
Ham on Rye was advertised as a sort of offbeat coming of age romp, the kind of movie where the characters succeed primarily because they begin to accept themselves. The kind whose trailers are a snappy montage of blithe profundities and relatable awkwardness, and there’s always a cool song to keep it trucking along nicely. The trailer had all of that, but it’s really just not that kind of movie. Part of me wishes it was (and I think Taormina does a little bit as well) but no amount of quirky endearments can hide the fact that in this world, personal growth and self-acceptance aren’t virtues that will be rewarded. The stakes seem graver than in other similarly billed outings like Eighth Grade (2018), Adventureland (2009), or Dazed and Confused (1993). The trailer would have you believe this one is part of that family, but it’s more like the weird cousin who’s just visiting for the day. I don’t blame the marketing team for dressing it up a little––sincerity is a tough sell, even without the malaise. The cool song definitely helps a lot.
I mention the music here because there’s not much in the way of that sort of choreographed indie rock spirit to the proceedings. To present us with that kind of adventure would be an admission of farce, a playfulness that might undermine the sense that we’re playing for keeps. It would also imbue a misguided sense of pathos. These aren’t characters with a deeply written backstory and a fun “where are they now?” segment in the credits. They’re conceptual cues, hieroglyphs which flicker and disappear as soon as the lights come on. We’re not really meant to celebrate or mourn them, but rather to reflect on what their passing might have uncovered in ourselves.
The lament of the American suburbs really boil down to this: If you succeed, it’s because you already had all of the advantages; if you fail, it’s because you wasted all your opportunities. The specter of the suburbs is ubiquitous; it’s baked into our movies, our tv shows, our literature, and our songs. It’s a domestic brew of firecrackers, dirt bikes, and ennui, enough to fill an ocean. And just like the ocean, most of what can be said about it is often trite compared to actually being there. Any effectiveness of Ham on Rye lies in Taormina leaving us with so little having been said or done but leaving the emotional message intact. In the suburbs, the only reward is the right to leave and punishment isn’t bondage or banishment. It’s indifference.