Review: ‘Sugar Daddy’ (2021), starring Kelly McCormack, Colm Feore, Amanda Brugel, Ishan Davé, Aaron Ashmore, Kaniehtiio Horn, Nicholas Campbell and Hilary McCormack

April 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kelly McCormack in “Sugar Daddy” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sugar Daddy” (2021)

Directed by Wendy Morgan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Toronto, the dramatic film “Sugar Daddy” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and one native Mohawk) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman who’s a struggling musician begins working as an escort to older wealthy men, and she gets more emotionally affected than she thought she would.

Culture Audience: “Sugar Daddy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing realistic and somewhat unconventional portrayals of people caught between desperation and integrity.

Colm Feore and Kelly McCormack in “Sugar Daddy” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sugar Daddy” isn’t Hollywood’s “Pretty Woman” fantasy of escort work. If people want to take a realistic trip inside the world of an unusual Canadian woman who becomes an escort, then get ready for Kelly McCormack’s tour-de-force performance in “Sugar Daddy.” The movie doesn’t force the usual sleazy stereotypes on viewers, nor does it push the over-used “hooker with a heart of gold” narrative.

Instead, “Sugar Daddy” is a revealing portrait of a 25-year-old aspiring music artist in Toronto who’s struggling not only with her finances but also with maintaining her dignity when the people around her frequently want to take her dignity away from her. The only thing about “Sugar Daddy” that doesn’t ring true is the movie’s title, because this film isn’t really about the men who hire the female protagonist to be their trophy companion. The movie is really about her trying to figure out who she is and what she’s willing to put up with in her life to be comfortable with herself.

McCormack not only stars in this dramatic film but she also wrote the “Sugar Daddy” screenplay, performed several of the soundtrack’s songs, and is one of the producers of the movie. “Sugar Daddy” was artfully directed by Wendy Morgan and has an all-female team of producers. Coincidence or not, it might be why “Sugar Daddy” is so authentic with its female perspective.

There are conversations and scenarios in this film that seem lifted directly from real life. McCormack confirms it in the “Sugar Daddy” production notes, where she says the movie was based on many real-life experiences that she’s had as a struggling artist, except that McCormack says, “I’ve never been paid to go out on a date.” She also comments in the production notes: “Writing this film became an escape hatch and the only clear path I saw before me to transfer the paternal power I gave away to the maternal power I could keep for myself. The process involved a lot of personal heat. I’ve written from happier places, but this was not one of them—it was a flammable excavation.”

In “Sugar Daddy,” McCormack plays the character of Darren Kessler, who has been living in Toronto for about five or six years, after moving to the big city from an unnamed suburb. Like many aspiring artists who make this type of move, she has dreams of being successful and acclaimed for her art. These dreams aren’t necessarily to become rich and famous, although that’s a goal of many wannabe entertainers. Viewers will get the impression that Darren at least wants to become a respected professional who gets paid enough for her art to live comfortably.

However, one of Darren’s biggest creative problems is that she’s still struggling to find her sound and voice as an artist. This confusion of who she is as an artist is demonstrated many times in the movie when Darren has a hard time explaining what type of music she performs when people ask her about her music. It’s shown in the film that she experiments with different sounds.

She’s a talented singer/musician who can perform in various genres, In one scene, she sings opera. In another scene, she sings traditional folk music, a cappella. In another scene, she plays music that can best be described as “noise pop.” However, she’s never shown performing in front of a live audience. It’s implied that Darren doesn’t have the confidence yet to showcase her new music in a live setting in front of a crowd.

Throughout the course of the story, as Darren writes more original songs, she starts to lean more toward doing avant-garde electronica music. Because her music isn’t easily marketable, it’s harder for her to get the record deal that she wants. One of the most true-to-life aspects of “Sugar Daddy” is how up-and-coming female artists in the music business are expected to have some kind of youthful sex appeal to be marketed or to get the attention of producers and executives who can help get them a record deal. It’s a very different experience from male artists, who aren’t as likely to be subjected to the same “sex appeal” standards as female artists.

Darren is a multi-instrumentalist who can’t seem figure out what type of instrument she wants to buy when she can afford to buy it. When she goes into a music store, she tries out keyboards, guitars and drums—none of which she can afford at the time, because like a lot of struggling artists, Darren is financially broke. At one point in the movie, after she starts to make money as an escort, the first instrument she buys is one that the music store owner (played by Brendan Canning) says is is very hard to learn how to play: a pedal steel guitar. That’s an indication of Darren’s personality: If she’s given a challenge, she’s not afraid to take it on.

How did Darren end up as an escort? In the beginning of the movie, Darren is seen working as a food server for a catering company. When she shows up at work one evening for a small, upscale cocktail party, she’s barely gotten there on time and has forgotten to bring nice shoes that complement the geisha-like work dress that she has to wear as her uniform at the party. All she has to wear on her feet are some scruffy athletic shoes. Darren remarks to her friend/co-worker Jenny (played by Kaniehtiio Horn) that she hopes that the party attendees (who seem to be wealthy business people) won’t notice what type of shoes she’s wearing.

In the kitchen during the party, Darren is seeing eating some of the leftover food quickly when people aren’t looking. Later, she sees a party guest named Sarah (played by Michelle Morgan) who used to work for the same catering company. This guest, who is in her late 20s or early 30s, is the date of a man who appears to be in his 60s.

In a private conversation that Darren and Sarah have at the party, Darren asks Sarah if she’s still working in the catering business. Sarah says no and explains that she’s there on a date with the older man. “But we’re not together,” Sarah hastily comments on her relationship to the man. “It’s just for tonight”

Sarah further explains: “It’s like a paid dating thing for rich, older men. It’s still just a ‘stand there and look pretty’ job, but it pays better and it’s a lot less work [than being a food server]. Anyway, it’s putting me through grad school.” Darren is intrigued by what she hears but doesn’t seem too interested in becoming a paid escort. She’ll change her mind when she gets desperate for money.

Toward the end of the party, when Darren sees all the leftover food in the kitchen, she puts a lot of the food in the backpack that she has with her. But just at that moment, her boss Edward (played by Noam Jenkins) walks in and sees the stolen food in the backpack. Based on what the boss says to her, it’s apparently not the first time that Darren has been caught stealing food, so she gets fired.

Darren has a roommate named Peter (played by Ishan Davé), who’s a Ph.D. student in sustainable urban planning. He’s a sensitive intellectual who can sometimes be socially awkward. Soon after losing her job, Darren tells Peter that she got fired and that she won’t be able to pay $200 for the next rent that’s due. (The movie doesn’t detail how Darren and Peter met.)

Peter is understanding but a little frustrated. Based on his reaction, it’s not the first time Darren couldn’t come up with her share of the rent. He makes certain comments throughout the story that make it clear that Darren has a hard time keeping a regular job. Peter gives some words of encouragement and tells Darren that she’ll probably find another job soon.

But she doesn’t. Darren looks for another job, but nothing pans out. And then, as a last resort, she goes to a website called Daddy Date and signs up to be available for hire as an escort. The next thing you know, she’s in a boutique, trying on ball gowns for a man in his late 60s or early 70s named Jim (played by Nicholas Campbell), who wants to buy her some dresses for possible future dates he can have with her. It’s shown in the movie that Darren charges $300 for a typical date.

Jim asks Darren if she would like to go to the opera with him sometime, and she mumbles something about how it depends on how much she’ll get paid for it. Jim is Darren’s first “sugar daddy” client. And he’s not a Hollywood fantasy of being movie-star handsome like Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman.” Jim is overweight, he’s got the type of splotchy face that indicates he’s probably got alcohol/drug abuse issues, and he’s old enough to be Darren’s grandfather.

At first, Jim acts as if he’s just a lonely, harmless guy who wants to be in the company of a younger woman. And at first, Darren is in denial when she thinks that she doesn’t have to do anything sexual on these dates. But, as “Sugar Daddy” realistically shows, when most people who use escort services pay for dates and give their dates gifts, these customers eventually expect to get something sexual out of these dates.

Jim shows signs that he’s not just lonely. He’s also mentally ill. And it should come as no surprise that he tries to lure Darren into situations that make her uncomfortable and could lead to sexual assault. For example, Jim tells Darren that they’re going to the opera on one of their dates. But instead, he drives her to a remote area and tries to get her high on marijuana. What happens after that will determine if Darren will see Jim again or not.

Darren has a more meaningful and emotional connection to another client named Gordon Pierce, a wealthy businessman in his 60s. Her first date with Gordon is at an upscale restaurant. Unlike Jim, Gordon seems genuinely interested in Darren as a person. At first, Darren uses the alias Dee on her escort dates, but over time, she opens up to Gordon enough that she tells him her real name.

Gordon, who is a bachelor who lives alone, eventually tells Darren that he has a daughter who’s around the same age as Darren is. During the first date that Gordon has with Darren, she tells him that she’s a college dropout and an aspiring singer/songwriter/musician . And he gives her this piece of advice that will come back to haunt her: “It’s important to know your value when you’re selling an intangible commodity, but I’m sure you understand that as a starving artist.”

During this dinner conversation, Darren and Gordon find out that they both tend to put their work above any personal relationships. Gordon essentially admits that he’s a workaholic who loves doing business. Darren says that she sometimes becomes so consumed with making music that she often feels as if nothing else matters.

Darren also briefly mentions her relationship history, by telling Gordon that she had a boyfriend who moved to Toronto to be with her. But the relationship didn’t work out because she fell out of love with him. Instead of breaking up with him, Darren says that she decided to become so difficult that he had no choice but to break up with her. And when he left, she says she felt relieved, not sad.

These are examples of how Darren is flawed and messy but also very realistic. She doesn’t have her life figured out, she makes mistakes along the way, and she can be self-centered. It might not be a formulaic Hollywood narrative for an “ingenue,” but neither is real life. During Gordon and Darren’s second date, which takes place at an art gallery, Gordon introduces Darren to his music industry friend Nancy (played by Amanda Brugel), whose interactions with Darren demonstrate assumptions and stereotypes that can be made about people in positions of power.

“Sugar Daddy” doesn’t tell Darren’s story in a smooth, straightforward manner. There are parts of the movie that abruptly skip back and forth, and viewers will have to speculate what happened in the time gaps that aren’t shown on screen. Darren’s family background is explained in this manner, just like a puzzle with pieces that remain missing.

In the beginning of the movie, Darren is seen attending a funeral in her suburban hometown. It’s never explained who died, but it’s implied that it’s a family member because Darren’s younger sister Rae (played by Hilary McCormack) and their mother Kathy (played by Paula Boudreau) are at the funeral. Darren’s parents split up years ago (it’s never specified when), and the divorce is still a painful topic. Kathy and Darren have a prickly relationship with each other.

While at her childhood home, Darren goes into someone’s room and decides to take lot of the vinyl albums that were in the room. Later, it’s revealed that the vinyl albums belonged to her father, who is still alive but estranged from Darren, Rae and Kathy. It’s also revealed that her father left the family and never bothered to pick up the albums from the house.

After the funeral, when Darren is ready to go back to Toronto, Darren’s mother Kathy notices that Darren is taking several of the vinyl albums with her. Kathy isn’t pleased about it, but Darren abruptly cuts off her mother who seems to want to argue about it. Kathy then asks Darren if she needs money, and Darren (who’s broke but too proud to tell her mother) adamantly says no to the offer. And Darren makes an exasperated noise when her mother says, “You can always ask your father for money.”

There’s more tension in the conversation when Kathy tells Darren: “When your sister comes to visit you for reading week, don’t let her get too drunk partying. She still has to study.” Darren snaps at her mother: “Is that what you think I do all the time?” Her mother replies, “I have no idea what you do.”

Back in Toronto, Darren’s roommate Peter knows exactly what she does. And her escort work becomes a problem for him because he’s in love with Darren. Whenever he tries to express his feelings to her, she puts him in the “friend zone.” For example, when Peter tells her that her singing woke him up the night before, she makes an apology.

But then he says while looking at her with a lovesick gaze, “To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless I heard you singing.” Darren seems to want to ignore Peter’s obvious infatuation, so instead, she quickly pats him on the head like he’s a dog and says, “Aw, you’re so sweet,” before she walks quickly into her room.

Eventually, Peter’s unrequited feelings for Darren come out in resentful ways. On Darren’s birthday, she celebrates with Peter a small group of about six other friends who have gathered at Darren and Peter’s apartment for a casual party. But it quickly turns into an angry argument when Peter deliberately mentions that Darren has been making money as an escort.

Darren immediately gets defensive and tells everyone that she doesn’t have sex with the men she gets paid to date. But the opinions in the group vary on whether or not what she does is really just a form of prostitution. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie because it realistically shows how people can have different opinions on what “escorting” really means and how the escorts should be judged. Not surprisingly, the paying clients are usually judged less harshly than the escorts.

The acting and dialogue in this scene are riveting to watch, because there’s also the undercurrent of what started this argument. Peter knew that revealing this information would embarrass Darren, but he did it to hurt her because she doesn’t want a romantic relationship with him. It’s speaks to the power dynamics that often occur when there’s sexual tension between two people and one person feels rejected by the other.

Meanwhile, although Darren wanted to keep her escort work a secret from her friends, once it’s out in the open, she doesn’t shy away from talking about it. It’s easy to see her mindset because she thinks that if she denied that she’s an escort, it would be like admitting that she’s doing something shameful. On the other hand, during this heated debate, she goes out of her way to deny that sexual activity will eventually be part of the expected transaction in this type of work.

And there’s also discussion about “obligation sex” in dating, when someone has sex with a date out of obligation, because of what the other person paid for on the date. And what about someone who has a lover who willingly pays all their bills? Is that a form of prostitution? Some of the people in the group think it is, while others don’t.

“Sugar Daddy” also realistically portrays the blurred lines that can occur when people mix business with sexual pleasure. It’s what happens with Darren and a casual acquaintance of hers named Angus (played by Aaron Ashmore), who’s a music producer. Darren knows that Angus is attracted to her, so there’s that unspoken tightrope that she has to navigate of how she can get Angus to help her without him expecting anything sexual in return.

About a year before this story takes place, Darren had promised Angus that she would give him a demo of her music, but she never did. But now that Darren has been making enough money, she’s been making demos and some provocative music videos in her home studio, so she’s feeling more confident about showcasing herself to possibly get a record deal. But how far will she go to get a record deal?

In her everyday life, Darren prefers to wear casual, baggy clothes. But “Sugar Daddy” subtly shows that it isn’t until Darren displays some sex appeal in her music videos that she begins to get attention for herself as an artist. She wears some of the glamorous dresses that Jim bought for her, and a few times she goes topless. At least one of these videos goes viral. “Sugar Daddy” devotes considerable screen time to showing Darren filming her self-made videos, which are essentially a reflection of Darren’s inner feelings at the time she makes these videos. (“Sugar Daddy” is the feature-film directorial debut of Morgan, who has a background in directing music videos.)

One night, Darren sees Angus at a bar, and he introduces her to an A&R representative named Jeffrey (played by Andy McQueen), who works for a record company called Bristow Records. When Angus tells Andy that Darren is a singer, Jeffrey invites her to a recording studio session that he and Angus are doing with a famous rapper. There’s a possibility that Darren will be asked to do guest vocals on one of the rapper’s songs. Darren is elated and thinks this could be her big break.

What happens in that recording studio is also one of the best scenes in the movie. It shows how women are treated in an environment where misogyny is not only expected, it’s also encouraged. It shows how female artists have to often choose between their integrity or career advancement that might involve doing art that’s degrading to women. And it shows the assumptions that people frequently have about the roles of women and men in the music industry.

It would be a very cliché thing to do to portray Darren as an enlightened feminist who knows exactly who she is and can stand up to people who try to take advantage of her. But the reality is for Darren and a lot of people like her, she often doesn’t think she has the power to say no in a situation where someone tells her to do something that makes her uncomfortable. And what if that person making those demands can also help in her career?

Darren also gets a rude awakening when she finds out that she isn’t as knowledgeable about who the real decision makers are at Bristow Records and the music business in general. She internalizes and sometimes acts out a lot of sexist stereotypes that people might have about women in the entertainment industry. And she finds out the hard way that things don’t always work out the way she wants if she mixes business with sexual pleasure.

Kelly McCormack’s performance as Darren is sometimes raw and sometimes rude, but always realistic. It’s a performance that demonstrates her considerable talents as an actress and singer. There’s a scene where Darren and her sister Rae sing a song over the phone to their mother (it’s mentioned that the sisters used to perform together) that’s a true standout in the movie.

Some parts of the “Sugar Daddy” screenplay could have been less meandering, but whatever minor flaws there are in the screenplay are outshone by the movie’s overall tone and presentation. Some of the dialogue and scenarios sizzle with so much authenticity, it feels like a lot of it happened in real life, but only the names of the people have been changed. The direction is solid, and the other cast members turn in good performances, but this movie wouldn’t work without Kelly McCormack’s unique vision in telling this story.

“Sugar Daddy” is not a movie that’s supposed to make viewers feel good about people who are worshipped just for having money or power. Nor is it a movie that tries to make Darren look like a helpless victim. It’s a movie that takes a very clear-eyed view of what it means to make certain decisions and how those decisions could affect people’s lives.

In “Sugar Daddy,” there are three themes presented as chapters in the story: “Timid,” “Joyous” and “Atrocious.” (“Timid, Joyous, Atrocious” is also the name of one of the movie’s soundtrack songs.) Those three words could describe aspects of Darren’s personality, as well as the way that she tries to become a professional artist. And what “Sugar Daddy” presents so effectively is that as long as there are “haves” and “have nots” in society, people’s attitudes toward money, power and how we value ourselves can indeed be timid, joyous and atrocious.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Sugar Daddy” on digital and VOD on April 6, 2021.

Review: ‘My Salinger Year,’ starring Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Margaret Qualley in “My Salinger Year” (Photo by Philippe Bosse/IFC Films)

“My Salinger Year”

Directed by Philippe Falardeau

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., during the years 1995 and 1996, the dramatic film “My Salinger Year” features a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A grad school dropout, who wants to become a professional writer, gets a job as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent and breaks the agency’s cardinal rule of how to answer Salinger’s fan mail. 

Culture Audience: “My Salinger Year” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Sigourney Weaver and people interested in movies about the New York literary world in the 1990s, but the movie lacks credibility in many crucial areas and portrays its main female characters as stereotypes.

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in “My Salinger Year” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The dramatic film “My Salinger Year” (written and directed by Philippe Falardeau) is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir of the same name, but the movie comes across as a fantasy of what women experience in the book publishing world. The female protagonist is an aspiring writer, but she does almost no work on her writing and instead spends most of the story obsessing over famed reclusive author J.D. Salinger and his fan mail, after she becomes an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent. The irony of her spending so much time reading Salinger’s fan mail is that she hasn’t read any of Salinger’s work, but she’s foolishly arrogant enough to think she can judge how his fans should respond to his work.

“My Salinger Year,” which takes place from 1995 to 1996, is one of those “bubble” biopics where the protagonist Joanna Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley) lives in a privileged bubble mentality. Joanna, who is in her early 20s when this story takes place, expects to get “discovered” as a writer without actually writing anything substantial. She thinks the rules don’t really apply to her in her office job. And she never acknowledges that people who are less privileged than she is have it much harder to get the opportunities that are handed to her because she’s young and has a certain level of physical attractiveness. Her idea of “suffering” is living in a Brooklyn apartment that doesn’t have a kitchen sink.

Joanna is intended to be a stereotypical wide-eyed, charming ingenue in this movie. But her actions show that she’s actually quite self-centered and dishonest—not all the time, but enough for viewers to see that beneath the pretty surface is someone who’s kind of a spoiled brat. Joanna is a dreamer who doesn’t like being reminded that people have bigger problems than she does. As such, the movie tries too hard to be whimsical by showing many fantasy sequences of Salinger’s fans speaking to the camera, as if they’re also speaking to Joanna.

Joanna doesn’t come from a rich family, but she aspires to be accepted into the sophisticated and educated social circles of people in Manhattan who have servants and read The New Yorker, her favorite magazine. She isn’t a snob, per se, because a snob’s sense of superiority comes from thinking about other people as being “lower-class,” whereas Joanna doesn’t really think about other people at all, except for what other people can do for her.

In the beginning of the movie, Joanna says in a voiceover: “I grew up in a quiet, suburban town just north of New York. On special occasions, my dad would take me into the city and we would get dessert at the Waldorf or the Plaza. I loved watching the people around us. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to write novels and speak five languages and travel. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to be extraordinary.”

The operative phrase here, which explains Joanna’s mindset and personality, is “I want.” She wants all these glamorous fantasies for herself, but actually doesn’t want to put in a lot of the hard work to achieve those dreams. You don’t learn five languages just by imagining yourself doing it. And that’s the same attitude that she has about her career goal of becoming a famous and respected writer. Her only experience at this point is having a few pieces published in The Paris Review.

As Joanna says in a voiceover in the beginning of the movie, she was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley when she decided to visit her childhood best friend Jenny (played by Seána Kerslake) in New York City for a few days. Joanna’s original plan was to return to Berkeley, where her boyfriend Karl Ansari (played by Hamza Haq) was waiting for her. Instead, Joanna explains, “something shifted.”

As far as Joanna is concerned, she can’t be a real writer without living in New York. And so, she never went back to Berkeley, she dropped out of grad school, and decided to move permanently to New York. And she never bothered to tell Karl that she was breaking up with him and why. So selfish. Karl knew that Joanna wanted to stay in New York, but he was misled into thinking that they would have a long-distance relationship. He eventually figured out that Joanna wanted to end the relationship when she stopped being in contact with him.

Joanna is never seen in Berkeley, as if she and the movie want to erase that part of her life. Instead, Joanna slides right into an easy living arrangement in New York City, where she becomes the roommate of Jenny and Jenny’s boyfriend Brett in the fall of 1995. Joanna isn’t a freeloader because she looks for a job by signing up with an employment agency. But, as can only happen in a movie with a privileged protagonist like this one, she gets a job right away by lying her way into it.

Joanna experiences no real struggles, no series of rejections that young, inexperienced writers often have to face when they’re just starting out in the workforce. (And experienced writers get rejected too.) No, that’s not to supposed to happen to Joanna, because the “My Salinger Year” filmmakers insult viewers’ intelligence by making it look like all you have to do is be a young, attractive female of a certain race to have people going out of their way to help you.

Joanna quickly gets an administrative assistant job at the fictional A&F Literary Management by lying that she knows how to type 60 words per minute. In reality, Joanna doesn’t know how to type. And she’s never given a typing test before she’s hired.

Joanna’s lack of typing skills is an indication that Joanna was too lazy to learn how to type during all of her years in college when she would’ve greatly benefited from having typing skills. Viewers have to assume that Joanna got other people to type her college assignments for her. More privilege on display.

Even when Joanna’s prickly and demanding boss Margaret (played by Sigourney Weaver) finds out later in the story that Joanna can’t type (due to all the mistakes that Joanna makes when she tries to type), Joanna doesn’t get fired. Why? Because Joanna told another big lie in the interview: When Margaret says she doesn’t like to have assistants who are aspiring writers, Joanna tells Margaret that she’s not an aspiring writer. Margaret’s dislike of having aspiring writers work for her is because she thinks wannabe writers give more priority to working on their own material instead of doing the work they were hired to do for the agency.

Margaret’s most famous client is reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose main claim to fame is his influential 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” a tale of a rebellious teenager named Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s last published work was the novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which The New Yorker published in 1965. Joanna knows how famous Salinger is, but she’s never read any of his work. It’s a secret that Joanna only admits to a few trusted people in her life because she doesn’t want to look ignorant when it comes to literature.

During the job interview, Margaret (who refers to Salinger as “Jerry”) tells Joanna that Jerry isn’t a problem but his people (in other words, his other gatekeepers and his obsessive fans) are a problem. Margaret warns Joanna: “You must never, ever give out his address … Remember, there’s no shortage of college graduates who want this job. Be prepared to work long hours.” Joanna acts like an eager beaver who will do whatever Margaret wants, so Joanna gets hired on the spot and is told her first day as an A&F employee will be on January 8, 1996.

Also in the room during the interview is a high-ranking A&F executive named Daniel (played by Colm Feore), who’s about the same age as Margaret. He seems to have enough of a comfort level with Margaret where he can call her a “tyrant” while she’s in the room. When Joanna is hired and gushes that she’s “honored and thrilled,” Daniel says cynically, “No need to be honored. Thrilled, maybe.” Joanna is then seen looking starry-eyed and hopeful as she walks through the hallways of A&F Literary Management to look at the photo-portrait wall hangings of famous authors who were the company’s past and present clients, such as Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.

During her first day on the job, Joanna meets three other employees who have lower rankings than Margaret and Daniel. Hugh (played by Brían F. O’Byrne), who takes care of legal matters such as contracts and correspondence, is the employee whom Joanna interacts with the most, other than Margaret. Hugh tells Joanna that he used to have her job when he started out at the company. On her first day on the job, Joanna also meets literary agents Max (played by Yanic Truesdale) and Lisa (played by Xiao Sun), who seem to be in this movie as token people of color, since their roles are not substantial to the story.

Hugh tells Joanna on her first day on the job, as he hands her stack of Salinger’s fan mail, that Salinger does not want to receive any mail from fans and other people requesting things from him. Instead, Hugh tells Joanna that the company’s policy is that people who write to Salinger are sent a standard form letter explaining that Salinger does not accept any mail. The form letters that are sent out must be identical. Sending a personal reply is strictly forbidden. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that Joanna is going to break that rule.

Hugh also explains to Joanna that all mail addressed to Salinger has to be opened and read as a safety precaution. Hugh makes a reference to Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon who had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him when Chapman was arrested in December 1980 right after the murder. John Hinkley Jr., who tried to assassinate then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in March 1981, was also obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Hugh says not all of Salinger’s fan mail comes from unknown people of questionable mental stability, because some famous and highly respected people sometimes try to contact Salinger by mail too. If the mail looks like it should be brought to a superior’s attention at the company, whoever reads the mail should do that. Otherwise, the mail has to be shredded. Needless to say, Joanna breaks that rule too, because she steals a lot of the fan mail to take home and read.

After moving to New York, Joanna doesn’t waste time in finding a new boyfriend. His name is Don (played by Douglas Booth), and he’s about five or six years older than Joanna. They met while he was working at a socialist bookstore. A love of reading and being aspiring writers are two of the few things that Joanna and Don have in common.

Don sees himself as a die-hard socialist, and he thinks a magazine like The New Yorker is a bourgeois joke that glorifies greed and capitalism. Considering that The New Yorker is Joanna’s favorite magazine and she has aspirations to lead a high-society, jet-set lifestyle, viewers can easily see how incompatible Joanna and Don are. Later on in the story, there are issues of control, respect and emotional manipulation that affect their relationship.

When Jenny drops hints to Joanna that Joanna has overstayed her welcome at Jenny’s apartment, Joanna decides to move in with Don after not knowing him for very long. Don and Joanna go apartment hunting together, and Don impulsively decides that they should live in a run-down apartment in Brooklyn that’s within their price range, even though they can barely afford the rent on their meager salaries. However, Don doesn’t want his name on the lease because he says he has bad credit (red flag warning signs right there), so Joanna is the one whose name is on the lease. In other words, she’ll be stuck paying the rent if the relationship doesn’t work out.

It isn’t until after she signs the lease that Joanna notices that the apartment doesn’t have a kitchen sink, and she’s not happy about it. Don tells her that it’s no big deal because they can wash dishes in the bathtub. Joanna is determined to convince herself that somehow this is all part of her fantasy of being an aspiring writer in New York. But viewers can easily see where this is going to go, considering that Joanna is the type of person who wants to hang out at the Waldorf Astoria and eat overpriced desserts. (And it’s exactly what she does later in the movie.)

While Don actually does a lot of writing (he’s working on his first novel), Joanna spends her days doing secretary work for Margaret and spends her nights reading Salinger’s fan mail. Joanna shows no passion for writing her own work at all. She doesn’t even have writer’s block as an excuse. And it isn’t until very late in the story, when she has an epiphany about her aimless life, that she finally gets around to reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”

There are some very mid-1990s references in the movie, such as Margaret’s skepticism about using the Internet. Margaret is so “old school” that she doesn’t even want her office to have computers, until she finally relents and gets one computer that she looks at it as if it’s an invention from outer space. And because digital recorders didn’t exist back then, Joanna has to use a cassette dictaphone to transcribe Margaret’s recordings.

The Margaret character might be compared to the tyrannical Miranda Priestly character (played by Meryl Streep), the fashion magazine boss in the much more entertaining 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was also based on a memoir written by a former administrative assistant in the New York City publishing industry. Just like Miranda has a brusque attitude toward her assistants, so too does Margaret. However, Margaret has more heart and is not as over-the-top as Miranda with her domineering ways.

Unlike Miranda, Margaret doesn’t take pleasure in demeaning her underlings. In fact, when Margaret finds out that Joanna lied about knowing how to type, and Joanna commits other betrayals of trust, Margaret doesn’t fire her. (Miranda Priestley would never show that type of mercy.) Weaver’s nuanced portrayal of Margaret is as a boss who actually wants to mentor someone, as long as that person is an aspiring literary agent, not an aspiring writer.

As a character, Margaret is a lot more believable than Joanna, although they are both written as stereotypes of women in the workplace: the battle-axe boss and the inexperienced ingenue. Viewers of “My Salinger Year” might find Joanna tolerable because of Qualley’s sympathetic portrayal of this character. Joanna looks an innocent beauty, and that’s why people easily forgive her, even though you know that people wouldn’t be so forgiving if she had a different physical appearance. Time and time again, Joanna is given many chances after she messes up or is caught in a big lie.

Even when Joanna gets her head out of her privileged bubble to acknowledge that other people have more emotional pain than she does, there’s an air of “ulterior motive” about it. When Margaret experiences a tragedy and takes time off from work, Joanna shows up unannounced at Margaret’s apartment with a bouquet of flowers and Margaret’s favorite soup. It’s a compassionate thing to do, but if we’re being honest, it’s also trying to impress the boss.

And when Joanna decides to accept her ex-boyfriend Karl’s invitation to meet with him while he’s in Washington, D.C., it’s only after Margaret tasks Joanna to spy on Salinger when Salinger goes to Washington to meet with a publisher named Clifford Bradbury (played by Matt Holland), who might publish Salinger’s next work. In other words, Joanna is only in Washington because her job is paying for the trip, not because she’s making any personal sacrifices to see Karl again. And she only shows remorse for how she treated Karl after she starts having problems with Don.

Yes, there’s a scene in the movie where Joanna spies on J.D. Salinger. The movie goes to great lengths to show Salinger (played by Tim Post) as a mysterious figure when Joanna sees him in person. His face is obscured or he’s shown only from the back. Salinger also talks to Joanna briefly over the phone, and she is predictably star-struck. Joanna is flattered and somewhat giggly when Margaret tells her that Salinger likes Joanna.

There’s a creepy subtext to all of that if viewers of this movie know that a grandfather-age Salinger had real-life predatory ways with women in their late teens and early 20s, according to author Joyce Maynard, who detailed her youthful experiences with Salinger in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” Since that book was published a few years after the story takes place in “My Salinger Year,” it’s understandable that the movie doesn’t mention that Salinger wasn’t so reclusive after all when it came to trying to seduce his young female fans.

Speaking of older men who prey on younger, less-experienced women, “My Salinger Year” ignores the reality that someone like Joanna would definitely have older men in the publishing industry trying to abuse their power by pressuring her to go on dates with them or other forms of sexual harassment. The movie also doesn’t acknowledge that there’s rampant sexism in the media/book publishing industry. The “My Salinger Year” movie is very much a fantasy version of what a woman like Joanna would experience in real life.

Even though in the beginning of the movie, Joanna shares fond childhood memories of time that she spent with her father while they visited New York City, “My Salinger Year” oddly never mentions Joanna’s family again. Viewers don’t know if her parents are still alive, and if they are still alive, what her parents think about Joanna dropping out of grad school to pursue a writing career in New York City. It’s an example of how the movie treats Joanna as an incomplete sketch in its relentless push of the ingenue narrative for her.

“My Salinger Year” has brief portrayals of a few other authors in addition to Salinger. Judy Blume (played by Gillian Doria) has a contentious meeting with Margaret at the A&F offices. Joanna is in awe of Judy because she read Judy Blume books when she was a child, so Joanna thinks she’s some kind of Judy Blume expert. And like a know-it-all, Joanna blurts out her opinions to Margaret on how Margaret mishandled the meeting with Judy, even though Joanna wasn’t even in the meeting.

In an earlier part of the movie, Joanna meets author Rachel Cusk (played Hayley Kezber), while Rachel is having lunch at a restaurant with Margaret, Daniel, Daniel’s wife Helen (played by Lise Roy) and Max. Joanna is there because Daniel happened to see Joanna walking outside and invited her into the restaurant to join them. When Margaret sees that Joanna and Rachel have a friendly rapport with each other, Margaret shows her spiteful side by coldly dismissing Joanna from the luncheon and telling her to go back to the office and work.

One of the most annoying aspects of “My Salinger Year” is how it portrays Salinger’s fans who write to him as sad, lonely people who act as if their lives will be ruined if Salinger doesn’t reply to their mail. These fans are all fictional characters in the movie, but that doesn’t make this movie’s depiction of them any less insulting to Salinger’s fan base. Joanna reads the fan letters in a mostly “holier than thou” way, but she admits that some of the letters affect her emotionally because she can sometimes relate to the fans who are aspiring writers.

But since the movie makes the fans who get screen time look like they might be mentally unhinged, sure enough, one of these fans (a teenage girl, played by Romane Denis) ends up showing stalker-like behavior when Joanna makes the mistake of writing back condescending, unsolicited advice about being a writer. The teenage fan unexpectedly shows up at the A&F offices to angrily confront Joanna. It’s one of the few times that Joanna gets a much-needed reality check about how her cavalier actions can have serious consequences.

The Salinger fan who gets the most screen time is a man in his late teens or early 20s named Fernell Breault (played by Théodore Pellerin), who’s from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Joanna becomes so fixated on his letters, that the movie’s fantasy sequences of Fernell evolve from him talking to the camera while he’s in North Carolina to actually appearing in front of Joanna and talking to her while she’s on a train, as he appears to her in a hallucination. So pretentious.

Far from being a female empowerment story, “My Salinger Year” shows that Joanna willingly mutes her own voice as a writer for almost the entire movie so that she can be second-fiddle to a famous male writer. This movie isn’t about Joanna being a writer. It’s about her answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail.

Joanna moved to New York City to become a writer, but while she’s living in New York, not once does the movie give an indication about what type of writing Joanna is capable of doing in her free time, except toward the end of the movie when she mentions some new poetry that she’s written. However, the poetry isn’t shown or spoken at all in the movie. Nor is there any indication if she’s good enough to be a professional writer. (Answering fan mail doesn’t count.)

Predictably, Joanna expects to be given a shortcut to her work getting published, but there isn’t a scene of her actually working at writing. It’s all such a wasted opportunity for this movie to show a young aspiring writer developing her craft. Instead, she’s portrayed as a fickle and flighty individual who would much rather wallow in fantasies and read someone else’s fan mail. And the title of this movie says it all: Joanna’s own story isn’t told without using the name of a famous male author.

IFC Films released “My Salinger Year” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.