Somewhere in the depths of the internet, there is a forty-two-minute YouTube video, uploaded in 2012, featuring a single image of a loaf of bread. Over this image, a monotone automated Czech voice—the result of extensive Google Translate abuse—is reciting what is by some known as the “longest joke”: a nonsense story about buttered bread and various pastries meeting each other in the street and agreeing to all walk together, until the inevitable non-punchline (the tomato is not allowed to join the group; it does not have legs).
Besides the obvious connection with bread, Ham on Rye, the feature debut of American musician-turned-filmmaker Tyler Taormina, may engender similarly mixed feelings of confused entertainment at first glance.
A group of teenagers are strolling through generic American suburbia speaking lines that might as well have been copy-pasted from an insufferable tween magazine. The way these single-use plastic dialogues are delivered—with just enough enthusiasm to come across as extremely corny—sets the tone for the first, intoxicatingly glowy day-time sequence. Employing every possible tool from teen TV and American summertime music videos, Taormina manages to create a weirdly comical and unapologetically over-the-top epic, following the cast into a local deli, where they engage in a sacred ritual of growing-up-and-leaving-your-hometown-ascension.
Those left behind shall be doomed to stay kids forever or turn into the miserable failures who inhabit the carefully sectioned-off night-time part of the film, which plays as a showcase of futures that didn’t work out. These lost souls drive and sit around in some sort of a perpetual macabre reunion, scenes that depress the viewer to infinity and beyond. As the film progresses, the dark world we find ourselves in, of sad people stuck in place forever-and-always, is much less comprehensible and straightforward than its lightweight, first-half counterpart. Still, destination desolation—as one might dub whatever is going on here—somehow remains relatable. It is also, at times, crushingly effective: we are stung by dark, hard truths through biting one-liners and enclosed in a gripping atmosphere of gloom.
Both contrasting parts of the film are perfectly justified, despite the latter seeming a little out-of-breath. They complement one another, connected through the character of Haley (Haley Bodell), a wandering scout of the flat landscape. Haley obviously serves as a device for making Taormina’s point even more literal: endlessly calling friends’ cellphones that have long gone dead and ringing bells at empty houses. Her unforced, fragile acting style, along with the consistent use of sensitive details and close-ups with her and other actors, also balances out the metaphorical spiritual hyperbole Taormina creates on set with all his other, colossal group shots.
To be completely direct, Ham on Rye is in fact wildly enjoyable. A little over two weeks’ worth of time and a limited budget are rarely the elements for a movie as well put-together as this film. Also, directing hundreds of mostly teenagers on sixty locations while cooling an overheating camera in an ice cream refrigerator—Taormina spoke about the perks of creating the film in this interview—sounds poetically nightmarish in the mode of much of the second half of the move. While all this is an achievement in itself, it also is at the same time not too surprising, given that Taormina has obviously come down with a bad case of lunatic creativity (just watch him calling the shoot insane in this red carpet interview with an expression of utter joy and pride). Since I am one of the 620 people who watched this obscurely cute video—and the fourth, I might add, to give it a thumbs up—that appears to be actually featuring Taormina giving an anti-fast food presentation to a class of people in 2009, I feel qualified to defend the argument that Ham on Rye is floating somewhere within the weird part of YouTube outside of YouTube category, totally owning its particular slot of content.
This purely “chaotic good” outlook with which Taormina seems to approach filmmaking is reflected in every shot of Ham on Rye and is probably the reason the film resists any specific labels. Taormina naturally employs a number of his favorite style elements, arriving at the Dazed and Confused—there, I mentioned it—destination basically within the film’s first minute. So it is obviously not the case of a film being absolutely incomparable to anything else. That said, it is a distinctive and fresh piece of cinematic art—likely not conventionally funny enough to entertain a general audience as a comedy, while also definitely not too serious to function as deep social critique. Casual extravaganza and visual mixtape meets kids’ TV? Maybe that’s the one.