While many up and coming filmmakers borrow inspiration from the macabre, surreal stylings of David Lynch, few have nailed it quite so perfectly as Tyler Taormina. Whether he meant to or not, this man has created one of the most Lynchian things I’ve ever seen in his 2019 debut feature film, Ham on Rye. Tangent for a second: I find it hilarious that Lynchian is a common adjective now, what an iconic feat for a director to have such a distinct visual style that his last name literally is equivalent with the style itself.
But going back to Ham on Rye. The movie is a surreal coming of age story where a bunch of teenagers have to go through a ritual at the local delicatessen called Monty’s. The ritual is never clearly defined, although everyone seems to know, maybe? how it works. It’s a surreal mix of awkward junior high mating rituals. Dancing, socializing, picking a ‘mate’, and then circling around a floating orb disco ball sun.
What’s immediately Lynchian about it is that there’s apparently a logic to this world, and yet, the audience never really knows what it is. At times it feels like even the characters themselves don’t really know what it is. They just follow the crowd and try to fit in, like junior highers, and most of them figure it out by the end. And then they all inexplicably ‘pass’ the test and vanish into the sunset (??!!). And the audience still doesn’t know what happened.
And THEN, the last half hour follows everyone who failed the ritual, which goes full-on Lynch. It’s basically the most depressing slow-burning I-want-to-kill-myself montage of the lower-class American-suburbia rut that I’ve ever seen. It’s painful to watch. People drive around being bored. A guy lights a guitar string on fire. They play uno and talk about nothing of consequence. Everybody looks horrifyingly miserable.
What a fascinating commentary on how pivotal and formative high school can be. It’s like, if you ‘fail’ the social part of high school, you’re stuck permanently in listless, apathetic Americana. The score and lack of coherent dialogue makes it feel like a fever dream (similar vibe to Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared, another fantastic Lynchian-but-not-Lynch project)
One of the most Lynchian scenes is when two parents try to call their son, who passed the ritual a few years ago and is in college. The entire phone conversation is glitchy because of a bad connection. The awkwardness is compounded by the unspoken divide between them. The son has a better life, they don’t. They want to stay in touch, keep hope alive, but he has moved on. It touches a raw nightmarish chord in a way that few filmmakers besides Lynch seem capable of doing.
And then it’s over. It doesn’t end with an explanation or a recap or anything that dumbs down the story to you the viewer. It ends the same way it begins. At a park with people pretending to be happy and hopeful, because even if they can’t have a better life, their kids can. Once again, the commentary on modern America hits hard.
Probably the only thing that isn’t exactly Lynchian is the characters. David Lynch has created some truly legendary characters over his filmography. Henry Spencer from Eraserhead, Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens from Blue Velvet, pretty much every Twin Peaks character, not to mention David Lynch himself. Unfortunately, Ham on Rye is heavy on atmosphere, light on memorable characters. It actually has a lot of characters, sort of like a Robert Altman movie, and ironically the result is that none of them are memorable. The most memorable is Monty, the jaded owner of the deli who we only see for a few minutes.
Still though, ultimately it captures the spirit of a Lynch film: Surreal, profound, haunting, quintessentially American, lots of social commentary, and it feels like a nightmare you’ve had before.
Rating: Basically Lynch / Lynch