At first glance, Tyler Taormina’s “Ham on Rye” plays like “Dazed and Confused” with more poetry and less connective tissue, or “Eighth Grade” with benevolence in place of cruelty. Then things get weird.
The film, a haunting and hard-to-pigeonhole feature debut, is playing in a virtual screening at the Brattle and, despite being filmed in LA, has local roots: A number of the crew are Emerson alumni including cinematographer Carson Lund, whose ethereal compositions go a long way to making the movie work.
Over a bedrock of strumming, faceless indie-pop music, we’re introduced to the teenagers of a small town readying themselves for a semiformal: gowns and corsages, awkwardly knotted neckties, parents grabbing group snapshots. We meet a group of three girls — a queen bee (Audrey Boos), a backstabber (Gabriella Herrera), and a nice girl (Haley Bodell). There’s a bunch of nerdy boys walking down the sidewalk with a practiced strut, and a car full of headbangers happily rocking out. And more, a lot more, the individual faces seemingly picked out at random to form a gradual mosaic. We’re still unsure where this is all leading.
Well, to Monty’s, a local sandwich shop that is hosting the dance. Already there’s a strange air of ritual: the way each of the kids places his or her hand on the outline of a hand on the shop window. The boys and girls face off with sweaty palms and false bravura, small dramas unfold — acceptances and rejections — and the scene builds to a dreamy, sustained moment of bliss, as if the precipice of adolescence had turned into an on-ramp to something bigger and more wonderful.
Then the something-weird happens and “Ham on Rye” turns its attention to the teenagers who weren’t at the dance: Haley, who left in a pique of embarrassment after being passed over by a boy; two-timing Jamie (Grant McLellan), punched out by his girlfriend and a figure of scorn; poor Jim (Blake Borders), who had a panic attack on the way over. Taormina widens his gaze at this point to take in older members of the town — exhausted parents, defeated men and women in their 20s, a sour crew playing Uno at an outdoor beer blast — and you sense that “Ham on Rye” has become a meditation on those who remain stuck in small towns while the lucky ones are able to get away.
Aspects of dreaming stick to the edges of this film. It’s never clear when we are, with music cues from the early ’60s and late ’90s, cars from the ’80s, an iPod from the turn of the millennium. That Uno game is cast with actors who were on Nickelodeon and other kids shows in their youth and are now adult, anonymous, somehow chastened. A father phones his son at college but can’t quite hear what he’s saying. A helium balloon breaks suddenly away from the pack to rise to the ceiling — is it free or just differently trapped? “Ham on Rye” will frustrate literal-minded audiences, but it’s a work of gentle, genuine American surrealism — a lo-fi love song to those left behind by character and chance.
HAM ON RYE
Directed by Tyler Taormina. Written by Taormina and Eric Berger. Starring Haley Bodell, Gabriella Herrera. Available via virtual screening at the Brattle. 85 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, teen carousing).