On Ham on Rye and Smoking Bowls

Filmmaker Jenny Gage on Tyler Taormina's unconventional coming-of-age movie, a film which perfectly captures the feeling of being a teenager.

When I was in seventh grade, I hated riding the school bus. The bus was always empty when I got on. We lived at the ass-end of Malibu, what the locals call Western Malibu, so as you got further down the coast, the population thinned out, especially the kid population. It wouldn’t be unusual for there to only be six or seven of us total to ride up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu Park Junior High. I preferred to sit alone, same as the rest of the kids.

One morning, the bus had just pulled out from Broad Beach, across from Trancas Country Market. I saw two older boys standing along the PCH. Tall, gangly with wet hair, dark jeans and army coats and maybe one of them was even wearing sunglasses. I recognized them from school, but never from the bus ride. They were not bus rider types. They flagged down the bus and, amazingly, it stopped for them. They piled in, laughing as they got on, as if they knew before seeing any of us that they were cooler then us. Us dorks rode the bus every day and they were just getting a ride.

Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, and Gabriella Herrera in Ham on Rye.

I usually sat toward the back of the bus, not the last row or anything that daring, but far enough back that no one would sit behind me. The boys walked by, oozing cool and looking at me sideways, and I could smell their dirty clothes piled on top of their freshly showered bodies and I actually checked to make sure that my no-pants-on-the-bus dream hadn’t really happened. They went straight for the back of the bus, only a few rows behind me. I stared out the window as if there was something fascinating out there, but I listened carefully to every word that came out of their mouths. They seemed to be talking from a nearby but unreachable dimension about the music they loved and some they hated and homework they didn’t do and teachers they hated, all things that were part of my rotating conversations with friends, but with them it somehow sounded totally different. They kept circling back to one thing with so much animation, I knew even without knowing exactly what they were talking about that it had to be drugs and it had to be something interesting. I sat stone still, but a rush of thrill was spreading out from my core, up my spine and down my limbs. They were talking about smoking bowls, which sounded kind of like a skateboard thing? What could it mean? These guys were definitely not skateboarders. So it had to be something they were doing with weed, because they kept saying how high they were. I left that bus ride that morning with the impression of two older boys, who were equally mysterious and scary, having opened a door to their mysterious dimension, whispering in my ear, Hey little girl, you don’t know yet, but you will

Because that’s just the way being a teenager is. There’s a series of questions that you know have answers to them, but you just can’t hook into them yet. I could see my teen years upon the horizon, and even though I would be lost and confused and sometimes stoned just like them, one by the one the answers would come.

Jenny Gage (left) with her best friend at high school graduation.

So you can imagine my great delight to see those boys reimagined in the wonderfully dark and mysterious film Ham on Rye. And it was not just them, it was all of us. There are movies about what it feels like to be a teenager, but Ham on Rye does more than that, watching it feels like what it feels like to be a teenager, and that’s special. Specifically the wonderfully messy, confusing part. Of course there is loneliness, the brashness and the timidness, the inability to communicate and the dread of the unknown. The unknown is a big part of the confusion. Like the racking question of who you will be when you are older. And the dreadful fact that you will only know through time. But time moves so slow when you are that age and there’s nothing you can do about that. So you just gotta wait and stumble through it, and that sucks. But what if at the end of adolescence you might get sucked up into outer space after a high school dance party at the local deli?

And if you do get sucked up, what happens to you? And if you are left behind either by choice or by a more random set of circumstances, what happens to you? And what if the space ship is college? Or just some place other than the town you grew up in? Ham on Rye is an emotional ride through all those emotions and questions we sock away in order to grow up, mixed into something more supernatural.

A scene from Ham on Rye.

In Ham on Rye, we watch the small groups of suburban teens try and make sense of their surroundings, feelings and emotions while tapping into our own. Ham on Rye might have a softer palette than you remember your childhood having, but maybe that’s also the point? Maybe it really wasn’t as bad or as scary as it felt to you? Or maybe it still was? Either way, watching Ham on Rye made me think and made me feel and made me happy and that feels like a great thing for a movie to do. I loved being in these moviemakers’ peach-filtered heads and I hope everyone gets a chance to experience that too. To go back and be a teenager for a few hours, especially now, seems like a perfect thing to do. I hope you all get a chance to see and experience it.

On a parting note, I’d like to think that at the end of high school I would choose the spaceship journey, but then again I’d really miss everyone who stayed behind, so maybe I wouldn’t. I really like thinking about it, though, and that makes me happy that a movie like Ham on Rye exists.

Jenny Gage is an an accomplished writer-director and photographer. Jenny’s first film, All This Panic, premiered at Tribeca and was released theatrically in March 2017. Shot over three years, the documentary takes an intimate look at the interior lives of a group of teenage girls as they come of age in Brooklyn and received glowing reviews from such publications as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter. Jenny’s first narrative feature, After, starring Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and based on the internationally best-selling novel by Anna Todd, was released by Aviron Pictures/Voltage in 2019. It went on to gross $70 million globally. As a photographer, Jenny has had her work with her partner Tom Betterton published in the pages of Vanity Fair, W magazine, and Vogue, and installed in numerous galleries and museums, including in the permanent collections of the Whitney and MOMA. Jenny is based in Los Angeles.