With his first feature, the director and co-writer Tyler Taormina delivers something at first familiar and then increasingly — but never ostentatiously — strange. “Ham on Rye” can be taken as an allegory for middle-class suburban life in America, but it’s got added value as a potent mood piece, accomplished with a bare minimum of means.
It’s late spring in the suburbs, and boys and girls of high-school age are dressing up — not quite in prom wear, but in sundresses and ties and jackets, headed to some kind of event. As they wend their way through more or less quiet streets, the boys talk, crudely but with awkward innocence, about sex. The girls talk about fashion and popularity.
In other parts of town, slightly older kids, a bit disheveled and aimless, drive around in cars, tune guitars and look dissatisfied.
The destination of the walking kids is, well, a delicatessen, and this is where the film’s similarities to coming-of-age movies like “Dazed and Confused” ends. Inside the shop, the boys form one line, the girls another, music begins and, with hand gestures for language, the kids pair off into couples.
Without giving away too much, let’s say the rest of the plot recalls the great Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery.” But there’s no overt horror element, or violence, here. The unease is existential, as the fates of some of the couples make clear.
While it’s eventually seen that some of the kids have mobile phones, Taormina purposefully dresses his cast and designs their environment in a way that throws them into a sort of temporal never-never land. He achieves a number of other startling effects in this impressive movie, which sheds its naturalism slowly as it embraces a surrealism that’s both disquieting and poignant.
Ham on Rye
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.