The titular Holden in Malcolm Clarke’s tepid, torpid debut feature is Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” and though Neil Lawerence (DJ Qualls), the troubled teen at the center of the plot, assiduously pursues him (and his creator), you’d be well advised not to catch the film.
There’s something oddly old-fashioned and contrived about the screenplay by Sean Kanan, a young actor mostly known for his television work (including stints on several soap operas). “Chasing Holden” might have seemed mildly au courant forty years ago, when the book was a curricular staple, but the idea of a prep school student obsessed with Salinger’s character as a paradigm for his own unhappy life now seems positively neanderthal. Neil is the 19-year old son of the governor of New York (Tom Rack), no less, and we meet him as he’s being lovelessly packed off to a Pennsylvania boarding school after two years in a psychiatric hospital. After the obligatory accosting by a couple of campus bullies, he’s warmly received by the avuncular dean (Michael Sinelnikoff) and his hip house master Alex Patterson (scriptwriter Kanan), who’s also his Lit instructor. It’s Alex who sets the plot in motion when he assigns his class a paper on the fate that befalls Holden Caulfield after the end of Salinger’s book. Neil, who–as we’ve already been shown–identifies with the character, takes the assignment too much to heart, and before long he’s run off with T.J. (Rachel Blanchard), a local girl he’s met, to track down the reclusive Salinger in Vermont–though precisely why is never made very clear. The trip is an eventful one, since the duo is being sought by police and the governor’s powerful friends: eventually it involves–among other things–near-escapes, car theft, unhappy revelations by both teens, and even a couple of rape attempts, interspersed with a few clumsy happy-romantic moments. And, of course, there’s a tragic denouement which nonetheless serves as a learning experience: that’s de rigueur in this sort of piece.
A myriad of influences are discernible here. The teen angsty thrust of Salinger’s own work (and numerous other novels, such as John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace”) is mingled with a weird variant of Erich Segal’s “Love Story,” as well as a dollop of a teens-on-the-run road movie. Unfortunately, each element is handled very clumsily, and their combination proves an unsavory brew indeed. The tone of the episodes Kanan has constructed varies so wildly that it’s often difficult to know how to take them (a near-rape in a shabby New York hotel room seems totally out of place), and the dialogue throughout is stilted and pedestrian. The performances are equally flawed. Qualls works desperately hard but remains singularly unconvincing, while Blanchard has been handed a role that involves entirely too many sides to be credible in the hands of any young actress. Kanan made a particular mistake by taking on Patterson himself; the words he’s written for the character come across as especially false and pretentious coming from the mouth of a fellow whose callowness and preppy vacuity can’t be hidden by a beard or a few (borrowed) clever phrases. No one else in the cast is at all impressive, including Colin Fox as Neil’s supportive grandpa, and technically the film looks every bit the poverty-row independent it is.
“Chasing Holden” is the first fiction feature from Clarke, who’s previously made some documentaries that might have hammered home their points awfully hard but were at least sincere. This picture, on the other hand, seems phony from beginning to end.