It’s a familiar yet high-stakes circumstance, the risky sensation of which “My Salinger Year” can’t sustain beyond energetically proposing it in its first act. Still, writer/director Falardeau’s faithful adaptation of Rakoff’s 2014 memoir, which chronicles the author’s time working at one of New York City’s oldest literary agencies (Harold Ober Associates goes unnamed in the film), miraculously maintains a certain appeal, thanks in large part to Qualley. With her expressively enormous eyes, boisterous energy and inviting (yet frustratingly overused) voice-over, she leads the way as Rakoff, who chooses NYC’s mahogany-deep, bookish mystique over the sunny rhythms of Berkeley and a thriving musician boyfriend (Hamza Haq). Even though her performance, at least when compared to her uncontainable presence in movies like “Novitiate” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” registers as somewhat tame here mostly due to the film’s own meekness, Qualley nonetheless possesses ample charm and plausibility as a young woman at a major junction. The littlest details in her presentation here—from her sometimes hesitant demeanor, to acts as ordinary as slowly savoring an expensive dessert at a fancy hotel patisserie—leave an existential mark on the screen.
Again, this is the mid-’90s—a time when some wished email was just an annoying trend, smoking indoors over boozy lunches was still a thing, and the world was becoming anyone’s oyster fast with internet starting to dominate daily lives. It’s amid this atmosphere that Rakoff was placed in her agency job inside a sepia-colored, majestically wood-heavy workplace by a staffing firm. Looking at the photos of the literary geniuses that decorate the walls of her new office—we’re talking about the likes of Agatha Christie and of course, the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger—she quickly feels right at home. But then just as rapidly, she realizes that her boss Margaret (a subdued Sigourney Weaver, delivering a minor-key but affecting performance) prefers someone who isn’t an aspiring writer—“writers usually make the worst assistants,” we hear her say, not forgetting to tell the new novice that in order to succeed in this business, she should read some living writers.
The poker-faced, cold-mannered chief who is dead-against computers (used mostly as decorations in her office) or anything technological, soon puts the rookie typist Joanna in charge of dictations as well as an unusual task: reading all the fan mail that “Jerry” (that is, Salinger) receives and sending them a stock “we won’t be able to share this with Salinger” reply, before shredding the letters. We learn that they adopted this precautionary measure after Mark David Chapman’s assassination of John Lennon, citing Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as an inspiration for the murder—Joanna is supposed to use her judgment and report the crazies.