Personal passion projects are notoriously difficult to make work in the world of cinema. A director’s and writer’s investment in the material is always a good thing, but when translating personal experience through the medium of actors and with the constraints of a budget, it can be easy to miss the main purpose of crafting a piece of entertainment for the desire for fidelity to events as they are remembered. Writer-director James Steven Sadwith thankfully avoids most of the pitfalls of such projects in his feature directorial debut, Coming Through The Rye, but in the process he may have made a film a bit too narrowly focused on one audience.
In 1960s New England, Jamie Schwartz (Sadwith’s on-screen surrogate, played by Alex Wolff) struggles with the daily pressures of bullying and harassment at his all-boys boarding school. Amidst his angst and self-superiority over those who torment him, he discovers The Catcher In The Rye and immediately identifies with protagonist Holden Caulfield. After drafting a play adaptation of the novel, he becomes determined to track down the book’s reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, and get his permission to put on the play. With the help of local girl DeeDee (Stefania LaVie Owen), Jamie runs away from school to find the author of his inspiration.
Where the film excels is in its portrayal of teenage angst in honest and realistic terms. Jamie is most certainly the victim of harassment, but his reactions to his tormentors are equally petty and imbued with a sense of entitlement that begs to be broken. On the road, we not only watch Jamie and DeeDee fall in love, but they fall into that unique brand of teenage love, full of awkward pauses and insecurities that betray their sexual inexperience. I wouldn’t characterize the film as being overly married to its plot, as most of the runtime is spent hanging out with these two kids and coming to understand them, but the experience is enriched by the characters as written and the performers who bring them to life.
But relying on that dynamic is a double-edged sword, because the film runs the risk of being appealing to only a small demographic—primarily young folks who are either amidst a similar life experience as Jamie or have just come out the other side of a similar transformation. This is the problem when your main characters are naturalistically portrayed teenagers; their insufferable nature is built directly into their character, which means that you have to adopt an adolescent mindset in order to relate to them. Because we have all lived through the most painful stages of growing up we can all generally relate to Jamie and DeeDee’s struggles, but there’s a certain impatience that comes from waiting for Jamie to complete his all-too-familiar character arc, even considering the film’s trim 95 minutes.
Despite some minor technical failings, though, I can’t fault Coming Through The Rye too much for being narrowly focused at a specific audience. Even though the film isn’t heavy on comedy or even all that grippingly dramatic, there’s something charming about a road trip through the New England countryside with a couple of good kids. If that sounds fun to you, this might not be a bad film to check out; just don’t expect it to be a favorite unless you’re a particularly artistic 16 year old.