Ham on Rye: Today’s Special, by David Bax
In the early scenes, with its cast of teenagers (actual ones) getting dressed up in suits and gowns, painting their fingernails and hopping into cars with friends, Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye might lead you to believe it’s some kind of parody of prom-centric teen comedies. The nerdy kids pontificating about how “porking is the ultimate purpose” and breaking into a self-conscious strut when a group of cooler boys walks past would fit that. But maybe these kids are just behaving like characters in a movie because they haven’t yet formed identities of their own yet. That will all change after the event they’re getting ready for (which is not the prom, it turns out), in ways with which some of them will spend the rest of their lives trying to come to terms.
Ham on Rye has some fantastical story elements which I’ll refrain from spoiling but I’ll reveal that the film is split more or less neatly into two halves. The first covers the big event all those eager kids are getting ready for in the opening scenes. The second spends its time with those who, for one reason or another, didn’t attend this formative rite of passage.
It should be clear immediately that there’s more to Ham on Rye than standard suburban teen tropes because of the simple fact that it’s presented in the cinephile hipster-approved 1.66:1 aspect ratio. And director of photography Carson Lund makes great use of it, with a high-key but brilliantly hued aesthetic that looks like the pictures taken on a disposable camera. In other words, Ham on Rye looks the way memories look.
Ham on Rye also sounds just as good as it look. As lucid as the imagery is, the lushly twinkling indie pop music on the soundtrack casts an oneiric spell over the film.
Based on the cars and phones, Ham on Rye appears to take place in more or less the present day. But it also feels like the recollections and regrets from everyone’s childhood that are immediately available to us no matter how much time has passed. The movie is a parable of sorts about the decisions we make in our teenage years that redefine our lives’ trajectories or, at least, seem to do so in the knife’s edge existence of navigating that particular moment. The allegory on display is an unsubtle but deeply felt and starkly realized one.
After the sun goes down just past the halfway point, it starts to feel like it will never come up again. In this unending, oppressively still night, the movie feels like an elegy for something. For wasted youth, maybe? Or, perhaps more devastatingly, for a youth well-spent and friendships heartily forged that will never be accessible again? Whatever it is it’s grieving, Ham on Rye is the most touchingly mournful film I’ve seen in years.