You’ll want to see the coming-of-age drama “Coming Through the Rye” to see Oscar winner Chris Cooper’s winning interpretation of reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger.
It’s a blunt, measured and sympathetic take on a writer often depicted as angry, embittered, twisted and warped by the fame “The Catcher in the Rye” brought him. His is a Salinger who didn’t want the world’s attention, didn’t want Hollywood’s money, didn’t want anybody “interpreting” his children — the kids of one of the most beloved American novels of all time.
Emmy winning writer/director James Steven Sadwith’s autobiographical coming-of-age film doesn’t have a lot of originality to it, in spite of the nearly-unique nature of his youthful encounter with the Great Writer. But Cooper’s turn gives it weight and life.
Jamie Schwartz, played by Alex Wolff of “The Sitter” and TV’s “The Naked Brothers Band,” is a disaffected teen in a 1960s Pennsylvania boarding school. He has a passion for theater, but isn’t exactly star material. The jocks in school, “mean guys and phonies,” the lot of them, bully him.
But he’s read and re-read “The Catcher in the Rye.” He’s got the corduroy coat and red ear-flaps hat. He IS Holden Caulfield! All he really wants out of life is to save little kids, to spare them the agonies of life’s mistakes, to keep them from tumbling over that metaphoric cliff in Salinger’s novel.
His idea for a senior year independent study project? He’ll adapt “Catcher” for the Crampton School stage. His favorite teacher/advisor (Adrian Pasdar) has just one question.
“You have Mr. Salinger’s permission?”
Thus begins Jamie’s pre-Internet quest, to find the author nobody can find and get permission from a writer who never gives it.
Sadwith’s odyssey is strewn with cliches, starting with the state of Jamie’s romantic life. He can pine for the theatrical blonde leading lady (Kabby Borders), but she’ll never give him the time of day. It’s the perky, freckled brunette (Stefania Lavie Owen) who flirts with him, “gets” him and never gets more than the time of day from him.
But DeeDee (Owen) has a car. And as Jamie’s search hits one dead-end after another (chasing down Salinger’s agent, etc), he talks her into driving him to Cornish, New Hampshire. They’ll meet the real-life Holden, hiding out in the woods. And Jame will make his case to the Great Writer’s face.
The telling of the tale is littered with flashbacks of Jamie’s adored older brother (Zephyr Benson), a rebel ahead of his time and an inspiration to Jamie. We see the assorted manifestations of Jamie’s bullying, the betrayals, the stolen diary that becomes fodder for ridicule all over school.
Jamie is written in that self-pitying Caulfield voice, something that grates about the novel if you read it as an adult. It’s hard to make children of boarding school privilege sympathetic, and Wolff has a hard time getting past insufferably self-involved.
Even his big moment — with Salinger — has a certain skin-crawling “I am the hero of my own privileged story” whining about it. he had the chutzpah to track down He who didn’t want to be tracked, and this is his best shot? A plea for pity?
But Owen has a winsome and winning “cute girl whom everyone ignores” quality.
And Cooper makes the picture work. His presence puts us in the then-young Sadwith’s 1969 shoes, and lets us leave “Coming Through the Rye” with the same awe, respect and longing for more that Sadwith himself must have felt.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some drug material, sexuality and language
Cast:Alex Wolff, Chris Cooper, Stefania Lavie Owen, Adrian Pasdar
Credits:Written and directed by James Steven Sadwith. A Samuel Goldwyn release.