An awfully mild coming-of-age-in-literary-Manhattan story, “My Salinger Year” grows in focus and confidence alongside its main character, a naïve college graduate and would-be writer at sea in the book world. Luckily, that heroine is played by Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers,” “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), an actress able to play both artless and wised-up, and she traces this young woman’s evolution from one to the other with a translucency of emotion that anchors a featherweight tale.
Despite the title, J.D. Salinger plays little part in the proceedings aside from a gruff voice called “Jerry” at the end of the phone in the literary agency where Joanna finds work. (The film is based on Joanna Rakoff’s well-received 2014 memoir.) The girl’s primary job is to respond to and then shred the fan mail that still arrives for the reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye” even in 1995, four decades after its publication. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau films the letters as monologues delivered by the writers to the camera, which only emphasizes their untidy and plaintive neediness. It’s hard not to sympathize, and Joanna does, to the point of deciding to respond to some of the letters personally. No good deed etc. etc.
“My Salinger Year,” available at the Kendall Square and on demand, gets off to a bumpy start, with awkward voice-over narration and a heroine clueless even for the genre — Joanna’s penchant for granny dresses don’t help, nor does her involvement with a novelist boyfriend (Douglas Booth) who’s an overbearing ass. But as the film settles into the routine at the Harold Ober agency and records the lives within, it slowly finds its footing.
The chief life within is agency head Margaret, played to frosty, weary perfection by Sigourney Weaver. The late-’90s time period allows “My Salinger Year” to have a certain amount of fun with Margaret’s distaste for modern technology — she finally allows one computer into the office, with a “No Loitering” sign on it — and the sense of a dusty backwater of genteel intellectual superiority is captured in detail and in feeling. This is the kind of movie that swoons along with Joanna when she first visits the offices of The New Yorker to drop off a contract.
Not all of Falardeau’s gambits work. One of the letter-writers, a Holden Caulfield wannabe (Théodore Pellerin, from “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), becomes a voice and a face in Joanna’s head in ways that play out confusingly. There’s a magical-realist dance number in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria that doesn’t quite land. Like its heroine, “My Salinger Year” often has more heart than sense. But it’s good to remember that this director made “Monsieur Lazhar,” a lovely 2011 Oscar nominee that found the humanity in everyone in a troubled Montreal elementary school. Here, too, are a warmth and a curiosity for even the most minor of characters (except that louse of a boyfriend) and a faith in the lessons that a pliant, earnest — and, honestly, not terribly interesting — young person might accrue over time.
Qualley sells it with some of the natural grace of her mother, actress Andie MacDowell, but more quickness of spirit. The charming score by Martin Léon sells it, too, as does the director’s innate trust in people. “My Salinger Year” isn’t much, but it isn’t phony. Even Jerry might approve.
MY SALINGER YEAR
Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on the book by Joanna Rakoff. Starring Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver. At Kendall Square and available on demand. 101 minutes. R (language throughout, some violence).