Ham On Rye

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ham On Rye
"The score draws on the kind of timeless English melodies one might expect to hear in a Ben Wheatley or Robin Hardy film, and those white dresses begin to take on overtones of sacrifice."

The idea that high school should end with a prom is relatively new to the UK, and largely a consequence of John Hughes films. To those of us old enough to have avoided it, the idea of turning the pathetic but harmless phenomenon of the school disco into something formal and structured, encouraging participants to attend with dates at an age when many of them are certain they're so hideous that they'll be single for life, and entrenching social hierarchies by picking out a King and Queen is both bizarre and terrifying. Though what it covers isn't exactly a prom, taking place in the basement of a small town delicatessen, Tyler Taormina's Ham On Rye is alert to all this strangeness. It opens in the vein of those classic Eighties teen romances but unfolds more like an ethnography of US heterosexual mating rituals, before going somewhere that is literally and thematically very much darker.

There are no characters in the usual sense - or rather, there are so many that none emerges as an obvious central protagonist. What we are observing is a whole generation, a collection of teenagers who have reached the day which, so most of them seem to believe, their whole lives have been leading up to. We watch three of the girls dolling themselves up in white lacy dresses, briefly posing n a woodland glade as if to conjure up old cinematic images of the sacred feminine. A cluster of boys discuss the importance of reproduction - or 'porking', as they call it, being both indelicate and naïve - whilst shuffling their feet awkwardly and trying to manage a friend's panic attack. Though we catch brief glimpses of mobile phones, there is no clear phone or game related culture to anchor us in the present. A sense of timelessness pervades this place. The score draws on the kind of timeless English melodies one might expect to hear in a Ben Wheatley or Robin Hardy film, and those white dresses begin to take on overtones of sacrifice.

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The dance as coming of age ritual is an ancient thing. Many modern US teenagers - and now UK ones, to - grow up in terror of having no partner on that all-important day, whilst those who do are told that this will be one of the crowning moments of their lives, leaving them, young as they are, with nowhere to go afterwards. Somewhere in the shadows, nine to five jobs, marriage and reproduction await, to be followed all too closely by death. Parents' hearts break because their children will soon leave or, perhaps worse, stay, ready to spend their whole lives performing the same ritual steps as their parents did. Though nothing quite matches the terror of those teenagers waiting to successfully pick or be picked by a partner in that dingy basement, the darkness gathers quickly afterwards. A girl who is not chosen runs, panicked, into the street. Those deemed lucky swarm together under the dizzying electric lights. Then there are journeys home in darkness, awkward moments in suburban living rooms. Destinies have been decided in the blink of an eye in the turning of a thumb: up or down, in or out.

Heavily stylised and owing a good deal to the work of David Lynch - though many viewers will also be reminded of that of Jennifer Reeder - this is a film full of visual beauty (plain though most of the kids themselves are) yet sharply attuned to cruelty. There's little sense of malice in it. Rather, it depicts a system which divides and condemns by its very nature. It's not without affection: for the aggressively romantic music, a Sixties anthem whose beat suggests a duel; for pink bedrooms lit by soft afternoon light or for the bonds of as-yet-untested friendship, before the ceremony begins. It is - despite being marketed as a comedy - studiously bleak.

With over 100 actors, many of whom are performing for the first time, this is an incredibly ambitious first feature. It signals the arrival of a new voice, emerging with something like a scream. Choose it as a date movie and you can quickly find out if your relationship is doomed.

Reviewed on: 10 Jan 2021
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Ham On Rye packshot
A bizarre rite of passage at the local deli determines the fate of a generation of teenagers, leading some to escape their suburban town and dooming others to remain.

Director: Tyler Taormina

Writer: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger

Starring: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US

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