There are only a few months in any person’s life where they can remember truly well: the teenage years. And the teenage years don’t always let us be boys and girls in the way that we should, or desire to be. But for this Irish director Peter Kosminsky, the ’80s are every bit as memorable and maddeningly exciting as those bygone years when your heart really isn’t in it, you’re just afraid of reaching adulthood, and then no one ever asks you to be their boyfriend or girl.
Kosminsky doesn’t indulge his teen cast in sentimental nonsense. He knows as well as any right that the best way to get young people thinking and talking is to look at them and observe them with a wit as sharp as it is raw. So Kosminsky follows two unruly, wildly energetic characters — the dashing but no-nonsense Eric (Craig Parkinson) and his relentlessly enthusiastic sidekick Dean (Sam Hazeldine) — from their teenage years to the uncertainty and disillusionment of late adulthood.
His camera and camera crews straddle their roadsides, filmed in extraordinary handheld style; in one sequence, the camera slouches idly toward the window of Eric’s car as he drives into the night (the camera seems to float off to a parallel universe, out of the car and into the car) in order to trap the ephemeral, seeming awareness of his children watching him. The shots are skilfully observational and none of the dramatic beats feel contrived.
Andrew Maxwell’s searing score helps pull the audience into the movie’s heart of darkness (though as I watched this film, and as I remember my own adolescence, watching “The Sopranos” less evoked the existential dread that “Ham on Rye” gives us), and Denis Dyack’s amazing set, which should have reminded you of a tender picture from another Kosminsky film: The self-contained multistory boarding school set of “Wolf Hall,” here on the bank of the Irish Sea, is a microcosm of the all-consuming parental love in which it is immersed, and the humanity it drives towards destruction.
“Ham on Rye” might be the story of Brian Sinclair’s (Jack Reynor) late bookish and awkward teenage world, but it is in fact the story of every teenager’s afterlife, and what it does to his love for Dean, his deep friendship with Eric, and his ambivalence toward friendship. Few first friendships are as fiery as the one Brian and Dean forged while hanging around the decrepit walls of an old mental home. “Ham on Rye” has less to say about death and guilt and romantic love and identity than I thought it might, and maybe that’s what gives it such a strong sense of disappointment that the experience of being a teenager isn’t as comfortable as it should be. And maybe that’s what will shape your decisions for the rest of your life.