Culture Representation: Taking place in Denver, the dramatic film “Sanctuary” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A dominatrix’s client tries to end his relationship with her, but she has other plans.
Culture Audience: “Sanctuary” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in watching well-acted dramas where the main characters play a lot of mind games.
Role playing and power struggles are at the center of “Sanctuary,” a talkative psychological drama about a dominatrix and her client. The dialogue can get repetitive, but the cast members’ lively performances make the conversations more compelling. The movie (which has some dark comedic elements) does a fairly interesting presentation of the age-old question about sex workers and their clients: What should be done when the relationship might become more than transactional? “Sanctuary” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by and written by Micah Bloomberg, “Sanctuary” could easily have been a stage play. That’s because almost everything in the movie (except for flashback scenes) takes place in a hotel suite, with a very long conversation as the basis of the story. The conversation takes place between a dominatrix named Rebecca (played by Margaret Qualley) and her client named Hal Porterfield (played by Christopher Abbott), during and after one of their sessions.
“Sanctuary” (which takes place in Denver but was actually filmed in New York state) doesn’t reveal until after the first 15 minutes that Rebecca and Hal are in a dominatrix/client relationship. The opening scene shows Rebecca arriving at the Hal’s hotel suite. He’s the scion of Porterfield Hotels and Resorts.
Rebecca, who says she’s from the Lichter-Haynes law firm, is there to “interview” Hal for a liability affidavit that is included in a background check. It’s part of an evaluation process that Hal has to go through to determine if he’s acceptable to the company’s board of directors, who have to decide whether or not Hal will get the company’s CEO position. Hal seems a little nervous but confidently ready for the questions he’ll be getting.
At first, Rebecca (who has the mannerisms and outward appearance of efficient young legal executive) asks questions that seem typical for a personal background check. She asks Hal to confirm his date of birth. He says it’s April 7, 1987. But when she asks him his height and weight (which aren’t really appropriate questions), Hal lies and tells Rebecca that he’s 6’2″ and 200 pounds, which is taller and heavier than he really is. Rebecca mildly scolds him for telling her this lie.
Rebecca then asks Hal what his history is in taking legal and illegal drugs. He tells her he takes prescribed medication and that he’s taken recreational illegal drugs “thousands of times” in his life. Hal also says he’s been in treatment for alcohol addiction. Rebecca comments on the fact that Hal is drinking alcohol during the interview.
And then, the questions get inappropriate. Rebecca asks Hal if he has any sexually transmitted diseases. Hal tells Rebecca that he doubts that question is part of the affidavit. She insists that it is. Rebecca then asks Hal when he lost his virginity. He tells her he was 13, but she correctly guesses that he was actually 25. Rebecca grows increasingly hostile with Hal and starts berating and insulting him.
Rebecca then writes on her legal pad, “Hal Porterfield fucks like Caligula.” She then orders him to get on his knees and clean the bathroom in the suite. It’s soon revealed that Rebecca isn’t really a law firm employee who’s there to take an affidavit. She’s a dominatrix who’s been hired by Hal to do say these things to him to get him sexually aroused so that he can masturbate in front of her.
Hal (who really is a hotel heir) wrote the entire script for this encounter too. Rebecca is a dominatrix whose rule is that the clients don’t touch her, and she doesn’t touch the clients. Hal has been her client for an untold period of time, but the movie implies that it’s been at least several months. In other words, they’ve done this type of role playing many times before. Hal also isn’t a job candidate for CEO of Porterfield Hotels and Resorts. He already has the job and has recently been appointed to the position.
All of this information is revealed early on in the movie. And this revelation is the point where viewers will ether be intrigued or will not be interested in seeing the rest of the film. The rest of “Sanctuary” is a back-and-forth conversation where Hal tries to get Rebecca to leave because he wants to end their relationship, but Rebecca wants the upper hand and tries to prolong the stay as long as possible.
Why does Hal want to end the relationship? It’s not because he’s bored with Rebecca. In fact, after the session, Hal genuinely compliments her on giving another great performance. Rebecca takes off her straight blonde wig to reveal her natural brunette curly hair, which is an indication that she’s not “working” at that moment and is being “herself.”
Hal invites Rebecca to stay a little while and have a meal with him, even though he’s intending to end their relationship. There’s something about Rebecca that’s making Hal very uneasy, so he wants to stop seeing her. Viewers with enough life experience will figure out exactly what’s going on, long before the movie ends.
“Sanctuary” is meant to be an often-uncomfortable watch as these two people, who are both control freaks in their own ways, try to one-up each other in their power dynamics. Gender roles (traditional and non-traditional) have an effect on these dynamics. It should come as no surprise that Hal has “daddy issues” and is living in the shadow of his deceased mogul father Phillip “Phil” Porterfield. (Dominic Defilips portrays Phil as an elderly man, while Rene Calvo portrays Phil as a young man.) Rebecca is less forthcoming about her own personal issues, but eventually the cracks begin to show in her emotional shields.
Because “Sanctuary” is essentially about two people talking in a hotel suite, the movie lives or dies by the performances of Abbott and Qualley. Abbott gives the more credible performance, since Qualley has a tendency to over-act in some scenes. They both handle their dialogue like two people locked in a fencing match—and neither one wants to back down or admit defeat. It’s a battle of egos, wits and complicated feelings that might leave viewers feeling exhausted but unlikely to be bored.
Neon released “Sanctuary” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 2020s, the dramatic film “Stars at Noon” features a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An American journalist, who’s stranded in Nicaragua and doing sex work for money, gets involved with a mysterious British man, who has shady people chasing after him.
Culture Audience: “Stars at Noon” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of filmmaker Claire Denis, but this frequently dull misfire of a film will disappoint anyone looking for an intriguing, well-written story.
“Stars at Noon” is a messy and boring drama that’s an example of the worst type of pretentious self-indulgence, not only from the main characters but also the filmmakers. The dialogue is awful and unrealistic. And the acting isn’t much better. The cast members who portray the would-be couple at the center of the story do not have believable chemistry with each other. “Stars at Noon” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France, and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.
Directed by Claire Denis, “Stars at Noon” is adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel “The Stars at Noon.” Denis, Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius co-wrote the “Stars at Noon” adapted screenplay. The screenplay is the weakest link in this dreadful movie, which is filled with cringeworthy conversations that sound very fake and nonsensical. Denis’ direction also falters in “Stars at Noon,” by making what should have been an engaging thriller into a sluggish and annoying jumble of self-important garbage that rambles and stumbles until the movie’s underwhelming conclusion.
“Stars at Noon” irritates from the moment that viewers find out it’s peddling a “Pretty Woman” fantasy, where an irreverent sex worker expects one of her male customers to come to her rescue and save her from a life of desperation and degradation. That’s essentially what the entire movie is about, even though the filmmakers try to dress it up and fool audiences into thinking it’s an adventerous story about two “outlaw lovers” on the run. The “Stars at Noon” movie changes the book’s 1980s time period, so that the movie takes place in the early 2020s, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The era might have been updated for the movie, but “Stars at Noon” is filled with a lot of old-fashioned misogyny.
The misogyny is very apparent in how lead character Trish Johnson (played by Margaret Qualley) is written and presented as a whiny ditz who gets herself into predicaments and doesn’t have the common sense to get herself out of them. Trish is an American who’s stranded in Managua, Nicaragua, because a police officer called Subtenente Verga (played by Nick Romano) has taken her passport. Why? Verga suspects she’s doing an undercover investigation as a journalist.
“The Stars at Noon” book was set in the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution, during the Contra War phase, when the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the right-wing Somoza dictatorship. The entire Nicaraguan Revolution spanned from 1961 to 1990. Because the “Stars at Noon” movie takes place in the early 2020s, the Nicaraguan political turmoil is never fully explained. There are some vague references to Trish trying to uncover government corruption.
Trish calls herself a journalist, but she doesn’t do any journalism work in this movie. All she does for money is have sex with men, including Subtenente Verga, because she’s hoping that having sex with him will convince him to give her passport back to her. It isn’t necessarily misogynistic to show that Trish is doing sex work for money. (Sex workers are often desperate people who shouldn’t be judged too harshly by society.) What’s misogynistic about this portrayal is that Trish (who likes to tell everyone how smart and resourceful she is) is made to look like an idiot who hasn’t figured out other ways to make money where she doesn’t have to sexually degrade herself.
Trish speaks fluent Spanish. Apparently, it never occurred to her to get work as a translator/interpreter. And as a so-called journalist, she’s so lacking in basic common sense, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to be a journalist to know that if you’re an American citizen whose passport is lost or stolen in a foreign country, you can go to the U.S. embassy in that country to get an emergency passport re-issued. Trish does none of these things, of course, because there would be no “Stars at Noon” movie if Trish actually had the intelligence that she thinks she has.
Trish has a very off-putting way of trying to make people she interacts with seem inferior to her, when her whole life is such a train wreck, she’s in no place to judge. She actually doesn’t have a journalist assignment to be in Nicaragua. Trish apparently went there hoping to find something to “investigate” and then sell the story later.
A scene that comes about midway through the movie shows that Trish is also a failure as a journalist. She makes a videoconference call to an unnamed American magazine editor (played by John C. Reilly, making a cameo), and she begs him to give her an assignment. The editor works at a monthly magazine about sustainable, high-class travel. Trish pitches a story idea to him, by saying she can do an article about a nature reserve in Costa Rica.
The editor gives Trish an emphatic “no” to her pitch. He also reminds Trish that the last time he gave her an assignment, she just took the advance money and never delivered the assignment. In other words, Trish has burned her bridges with this editor. He tells her to lose his number and never contact him again.
Before this unpleasant conversation happened, Trish had gotten sexually involved with a British man named Daniel DeHaven (played by Joe Alwyn), whom she met at a bar in Managua. Daniel, who likes to dress in immaculate white suits, tells Trish in their first meeting that he’s a consultant for a British oil company named Watts Oil. Daniel isn’t really telling the truth about his identity. It soon becomes apparent that some menacing-looking people are chasing after Daniel.
This is the vapid conversation that Trish and Daniel have when they first meet in the bar. Daniel tells Trish that he’s from London, and he asks her where she’s from. Trish replies, “From here, there and yonder.” She then tells him, “You have the kind of manners that can get you killed out here.” Trish then says that she’s a special correspondent in “the north area.”
Daniel asks her, “Are you for sale?” Trish replies, “I’m press.” Daniel says that he’s a member of the press too. (He’s really not.) Trish answers, “Then, we’re all for sale.” Trish asks him to have supper with her, but Daniel declines because he says it’s too late in the night. Trish then bluntly tells him, “For a price, I’ll sleep with you.”
Trish insists that Daniel pay her in American dollars. Her price? A measly $50. It’s just more of the film’s misogyny on display. And to make Trish look like even more moronic, she doesn’t get the payment up front, like a street-smart sex worker is supposed to do. She gets the money after she has sex with Daniel.
So what does this tell audiences about Trish? She’s not only stupid, but she also sells herself short as a sex worker. And yet, throughout the entire movie, she acts like a know-it-all, when she actually knows very little. It’s very hard to respect any character who is this aggressively obnoxious and dumb.
During the first sexual encounter between Daniel and Trish, this is the type of mindless conversation that they have. Trish tells him, “Your skin is so white, it’s like being fucked by a cloud.” Is that supposed to be a compliment?
At some point during this encounter, Daniel tells Trish that he’s married. “I commit adultery often.” Trish doesn’t care. After Daniel pays her, Trish tells him, “I’m not here for the dollars. I’m here for the air conditioning.”
If you have the patience to sit through all of “Stars at Noon,” get used to more of this eye-rolling, mind-numbing, extremely aggravating dialogue, because the movie is full of it. Of course, since the movie is pushing a tale of “outlaw lovers on the run,” it isn’t long before Trish finds out that Daniel has dangerous people who are after him.
Because Trish is desperate to get out of Nicaragua, and she knows Daniel has the type of money that she doesn’t, Trish figures that she can go on the run with Daniel, and he can help her in some way get back to the United States. Daniel and Trish commit some crimes and end up in various places in Nicaragua and then Costa Rica. And the movie tries very hard to convince viewers that Daniel and Trish fall in love. But it’s never believable.
Trish is just a self-absorbed flake who complains a lot. Daniel is a blank void who hides a lot of information about himself and never comes across as someone who could genuinely fall in love with someone like Trish. Qualley seems to be making an effort to bring sympathy in her portrayal of this very silly and selfish character, but Trish is just too much of a babbling mess for most viewers to care about her. Alwyn seems to be going through the motions in his performance.
Daniel sees right through Trish’s insecurity, and makes some cutting remarks to her in a scene that happens shortly after they had sex for the first time. In this scene, Daniel and Trish are hanging out together in a bar in Nicaragua. Trish is acting superior to him, as usual. But then, Daniel tells her that prostitutes like to think that they’re in control of their customers, when they’re not, because the prostitutes depend on their customers for money. There’s enough truth in this statement that it leaves Trish (temporarily) speechless, because she can’t think of a snappy comeback.
It’s one of the few times in “Stars at Noon” where a conversation actually resembles something that could take place in real life. But the vast majority of this bloated movie (which has a too-long total running time of 136 minutes) is just a shambolic and tedious slog of Daniel and Trish trying to avoid capture while sometimes arguing and having sex. The Daniel/Trish sex scenes, which are very monotonous and generic, fail to convince that Daniel and Trish are together because of passionate lust.
The supporting characters in “Stars at Noon” are so hollow and underdeveloped, most of them don’t even have names or distinctive personalities. An unnamed Costa Rican cop (played by Danny Ramirez), who’s one of the people chasing after Daniel and Trish, does a lot of predictable sneering and smirking. An unnamed CIA operative (played by Benny Safdie), who’s also looking for this “outlaw couple,” spouts horrendous lines of dialogue while looking smug.
This what the CIA operative says when he comments on female sex workers: “They’re all as lonely as widows. They haven’t had a man’s hand on their thighs since Jesus was in diapers and Moses had a pacifier.” If this the type of trash screenwriting that you think is quality filmmaking, then perhaps you might like “Stars at Noon.” Everyone else is best advised to steer clear of this horrible movie.
A24 released “Stars at Noon” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 14, 2022. Hulu will premiere the movie on October 28, 2022.
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.
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.
In real life, Rakoff worked for Phyllis Westberg at the literary agency Harold Ober Associates, the inspiration behind the fictional Margaret character and A&F Literary Management in this movie. Westberg aslo represented Salinger in real life, and she was eventually promoted to chief of Harold Ober Associates in 1998. Because “My Salinger Year” takes place only in 1995 and 1996, this promotion is not depicted in the movie.
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 a 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 so she can 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 Priestly 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 like 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 that 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/Rakoff’s memoir 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. The movie’s title in the U.K. and Ireland is “My New York Year.”
Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France and briefly in Mexico, the biographical drama “Seberg” has a racially diverse cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.
Culture Clash: The film tells the story of American actress Jean Seberg, who was the target of FBI surveillance because of her support of left-wing civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers.
Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart (who plays Seberg in the movie) and people who like movies that have a very Hollywood version of real-life politically related events.
The title of the “based on true story” drama “Seberg” should have been renamed “Seberg and Some FBI Guy Who Tried to Warn Her That They’re Out to Get Her.” That’s because even though the movie is supposed to be about American actress Jean Seberg (played by Kristen Stewart) during the first few years that she was the target of a political FBI intimidation campaign, much of the movie also focuses on the life of fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (played by Jack O’Connell), one of the people tasked with making her life hell but he has a guilty conscience about it.
It’s one of the many disappointing choices made by the filmmakers of “Seberg,” which was directed by Benedict Andrews and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Based on the end results of how this movie was made, the filmmakers didn’t think Seberg was fascinating enough to show a more well-rounded view of her life, and instead they gave a lot of screen time to show the personal life of a fictional FBI agent.
Because Jack Solomon is a fictional character and the filmmakers want to make sure that his personal story is given almost as much weight as Seberg’s, the movie cheapens her real-life ordeal by spending so much time on backstories/subplots for other characters that were invented for this movie. There’s even a cliché “good cop/bad cop” duo that is the epitome of trite screenwriting.
Seberg was 40 years old when she died of an apparent suicide in Paris in 1979. The movie mainly depicts the years 1969 to 1971, when Seberg was one of the people targeted in the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO campaign, which investigated and harassed high-profile and influential people involved in left-wing politics. Because of the Freedom of Information Act, the media revealed details of COINTELPRO, which was under the leadership of then-FBI director Herbert Hoover, a known right-winger. The exposé of COINTELPRO happened after Seberg’s death.
“Seberg” begins with a brief scene with the actress filming her first movie, 1957’s “Saint Joan,” which was a critical and commercial flop, but that rough start to her movie career is not really mentioned in “Seberg.” The movie also skips over her turbulent first marriage to French attorney-turned-film-director François Moreuil (they were married from 1958 to 1960) and their contentious collaboration when he directed her in the 1961 film “Time Out for Love.”
Also omitted from the story is how she met and married her second husband: aviator/novelist/left-leaning political diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years older than Seberg. Gary was her husband from 1962 to 1970. (She gave birth to their son, Alexandre Diego, when Gary was still married to his previous wife.) And the movie definitely doesn’t show what happened to Jean after her much-maligned “Saint Joan” film debut, when she went on to experience international stardom with her breakthrough co-starring role in the 1960 French New Wave classic “Breathless.”
Instead, “Seberg” skips over all of that to show Jean, Romain (played by Yvan Attal) and their young son Diego (played by Gabriel Sky) at their home in France, where Jean says goodbye to them as she leaves to work on a movie in Los Angeles in 1969. (During most of her career, Seberg lived in France and made French and American films, so she spent a lot of time in the U.S. for work.)
While she’s headed to Los Angeles, two FBI agents (who are invented characters for this movie) are shown eavesdropping and doing surveillance recording of an African American political radical named Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie), who is a Black Panther supporter but not an official member of the Black Panther Party. (The Hakim character is based on the real-life Raymond Hewitt, who was a member of the Black Panther Party.) One of the FBI agents is the aforementioned Jack Solomon, and the other is Carl Kowalski (played by Vince Vaughn).
It’s established fairly early on in the movie who’s the “good cop” and who’s the “bad cop.” While Jack takes a more open-minded and methodical approach to his work, Carl takes a more aggressive “witch hunt” approach. While they’re spying on Hakim, the name of Jean Seberg comes up because the FBI has noticed that she’s been donating large sums of money to left-leaning civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers and the NAACP. Carl thinks that the FBI should start spying on Seberg too, but Jack doesn’t want to rush to judgment and wants to see if there’s proof that she’s a threat to the U.S. government.
While sitting in the first-class section on the plane to Los Angeles with her agent Walt Breckman (played by Stephen Root, in another of the movie’s fictional character roles), Jean notices a commotion on the plane. It’s Hakim, who’s very angry with a flight attendant because Betty Shabazz (Malcom X’s widow) has been seated in the coach section, when Hakim says that Betty should be in the first-class section. It’s a “don’t you know who she is/show some respect” moment that catches the flustered flight-attendant off-guard.
The flight attendant tells Hakim that she can’t make the accommodation without a first-class ticket, and Hakim gets even angrier and says that he will pay for the ticket himself and he’s not going to sit down until the matter is resolved. Hakim makes it clear that he thinks the flight attendant is being racist. Jean is intrigued by Hakim’s fiery passion and tells him that he and Betty can have her and Walt’s seats. Walt looks slightly horrified.
The next thing you know, after the plane disembarks, Hakim is among a group of Black Panthers on the tarmac holding a photo op with the press. (Remember, this was back in the 1960s, when people were allowed to be in certain areas of an airport where they can’t go now.) Jean sidles up to the group and holds up her fist in a “Black Power” gesture with them to show her solidarity.
Of course, this bold move doesn’t go unnoticed by Jack and Carl (or should we say Mutt and Jeff), who now know that Jean Seberg has definitely made it known to the public that she supports the Black Panthers, who were considered enemies of the state at the time. And in case viewers haven’t figured out that Carl is a racist, he makes it clear when he speculates why Jean wants to hang out with Hakim and the Black Panthers: “Who knows? Maybe she’s got a taste for dark meat on the bone.”
And wouldn’t you know, it isn’t long before Jean shows up in the middle of the night at the house where a married Hakim is staying to meet with other radical activists. While alone in the house, Hakim and Jean spend a little time flirting, and then they hop into bed together. The FBI has recorded it all.
Carl is infuriated and immediately wants to put Jean under intense surveillance, since he’s decided she’s now a “danger to society.” The movie implies that what really triggered the FBI witch hunt against her wasn’t the monetary donations to activists but because this famous white actress slept with a known black radical.
Carl takes this information to his superiors, and it isn’t long before the FBI approves of spying on and harassing Jean Seberg. While she’s away from her rented home to work on a film set, Jack breaks into the home and plants a bugging device on her phone. Meanwhile, as Hakim and Jean continue their hot’n’heavy affair, Hakim warns her that because he’s under FBI surveillance, she’ll become a target too.
At first, Jean doesn’t believe Hakim, but she eventually finds out the hard way how correct he was. Jean starts hanging out more with radical activists and donating money to their causes. She doesn’t believe in violence and instead chooses to support causes such as educational programs for kids and raising money to help improve low-income African American communities. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Grantham Coleman) makes a very brief appearance in the story.
Hakim is more than happy to take Jean’s donations, but he tells Jean: “You’re running in here with nails looking for a cross to die on … You’re playing with fire.” We’ll never know if the real Jean Seberg ever received this type of corny lecture, but the words are particularly cringeworthy, considering that the real Jean Seberg starred in “Saint Joan,” a movie where she played French heroine Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.
Another thing that Hakim says to Jean that sounds straight out of Hokey Screenwriting 101 is when he tells her his philosophy on civil-rights activism: “One mind at a time. If you can change that, you can change the world.” He sounds more like Mother Teresa than Malcolm X.
There’s also a soap-opera-ish subplot where Hakim’s wife, Dorothy Jamal (played by Zazie Beetz, in a thankless role), finds out about the affair. How does she find out? Carl and Jack call her anonymously and play her a recording of Jean and Hakim having sex.
Not long after Dorothy confronts Jean about the affair (and Dorothy is a lot calmer about it than most spouses would be), Jean and Hakim end their fling. But the wheels have already been set in motion for the FBI to make Jean’s life miserable. She’s followed everywhere she goes, and she knows her house is bugged. And one day when she’s away at work, a bumbling FBI agent kills her Chihuahua because the dog won’t stop yapping when the agent is snooping around the house.
Speaking of FBI agents, the movie wastes a lot of time showing the personal lives of Jack and Carl. Jack’s wife Linette (played by Margaret Qualley) is a medical student who becomes increasingly disturbed by the signs that the FBI is harassing Jean Seberg. How does she know? Because Jack brings home FBI files that show the FBI is stalking Jean, and her leaves this paperwork indiscreetly out on the kitchen table. When Linette asks Jack about these files, he snaps at her and tells her it’s none of her business. There are also a few unnecessary scenes of Jack and Linette socializing with friends.
Meanwhile, Carl is every bit the jerk at home as he is on the job. His wife and young daughter cringe in fear when he loses his temper, which is pretty much any time they don’t do what he tells them to do. It turns out that Carl has a particular hatred of left-wingers because his adult son (who lives in San Francisco) has become a radical hippie. Did viewers really need to know all of this information for fictional characters? No.
“Seberg” then goes to even more ludicrous levels when Jack takes it upon himself to anonymously call Jean and warn her that the FBI harassment will get worse unless she disassociates herself from the civil-rights movement. Jean’s response is to yell an obscenity at him. You can’t really blame her, because she doesn’t know if the call is a prank or not, since Jack doesn’t identify himself.
The constant surveillance and harassment take a toll on Jean’s mental health and her marriage. She starts to drink heavily and she becomes very paranoid. While on a film set, she demands that a cameraman be fired because she’s convinced he’s a spy planted by the FBI. She yells at people who she thinks might be staring at her too long. And there’s one melodramatic scene where she’s tearing up a room while looking for surveillance, and she ends up in a sobbing heap on the floor.
While in Mexico filming a movie, she has an affair with a local man. And when the FBI hears about her pregnancy, they make sure to plant a story in the media that Hakim is the father. The scandal resulted in a tragedy that won’t be revealed in this review if you don’t know what happened in real life.
Stewart gives a hit-and-miss performance in this film. She’s at her best in the first half of the story, when there are glimpses of the passions that drove Jean to do what she did, knowing that she would risk her reputation and career. But when Jean goes through her downward spiral in the second half of the story, Stewart’s performance becomes a not-very-convincing caricature of a woman having a nervous breakdown. And FBI agent Jack does something at the end of the movie that defies all credibility of what someone in his position would do.
Unfortunately, because the movie skips all of Jean’s life before she got involved in radical activism, it doesn’t provide any context over what led her to this point and how she came to have these political views. Her relationship with second husband Romain is also an incomplete sketch, since viewers never see how Jean and Romain fell in love, as a basis of their marriage that’s tested during this traumatic period in their lives.
The movie’s supporting actors, costume design and production design are all very good, but those assets are wasted on an uneven story that oddly seems too concerned with making a heroic figure out of one of the FBI agents who willingly participated in this psychological torture.
Amazon Studios released “Seberg” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020. The movie originally had a very limited U.S. release in December 2019, to qualify for awards.