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Film Review: “Ham on Rye” Offers a Visually Full Meal

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 10th, 2021

Film poster: “Ham on Rye”

Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

Filled with images both lyrical and eerie, Tyler Taormina’s debut feature, Ham on Rye offers a cinematic meal of solid calories made fancy through some impressive presentation. Though the story, itself, may be minimal, it resonates long afterwards, its implications universal beyond the borders of the small California town where the action takes place. Life is short; choose your path wisely. Unfortunately, it may choose you, and therein lies the dilemma.

One of the narrative devices sure to frustrate viewers looking for clear protagonists with whom to identify is that this is very much an ensemble piece, even if a few specific people occasionally stand out (particularly at the end). The true central focus is on the location and its bizarre, apparently annual, ritual of teens gathering for a prom-like party at Monty’s, a local diner. There, they choose a partner, after which they dance together and then leave as the sun sets, that departure a metaphor for the future that awaits. Those left alone must make their own sad way forward, abandoned by the ones who move on.

Haley Bodell in HAM ON RYE ©MUBI

Even when certain plot details remain purposefully obfuscated, Taormina keeps our visual interest high, so beautiful and precise are his compositions and general camera work. Whether we follow three high-school girls, bedecked in white dresses, on their way to the event, or groups of boys similarly on foot or in cars as they do what kids do (if more strangely), these seemingly mundane activities transform into high art thanks to precise framing and gentle tracking shots. The final truths of the affair may be slightly muddled, but the journey there is worth the trip, helped along by excellent naturalistic performances from the large cast.

Flitting from character to character, we barely get to know any of them, though perhaps that’s the point. The lucky ones are only around for a short while. The leftovers, young and old (someone needs to populate the town, after all), their sad faces pinched in confusion, linger both on screen and in our minds. Which ones are we? Something to consider …

Cole Devine in HAM ON RYE ©MUBI

[Starting on January 11, Ham on Rye streams on MUBI USA for 30 days.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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