Mark Reviews Movies

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Shawn Christensen

Cast: Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Monaghan, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Tim Blake Nelson

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 3/2/18 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 28, 2018

A lengthy act of explaining the past, motives, and ultimately strange behavior of its eponymous character, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall leaves little to the imagination and, by the end, a lot over which to be frustrated. The screenplay, written by director Shawn Christensen and Jason Dolan, seems to have constructed retroactively, beginning with the final stage of its central character and working backwards to provide an explanation for how he ended up in this position.

The movie's structure takes us through three phases of Sidney Hall's (Logan Lerman) life: before he writes his first novel, dealing with the unexpected success and unintentional consequences of the book, and after he has removed himself from society. These stories are intertwined in such a way that each possesses its own mystery, which one of the other periods of Sidney's life inevitably will answer. The big ones are what the book is actually about, why its success has become a negative for the author, and what leads him to flee from the world, traveling west across the country, while burning copies of his own books in stores and libraries along the way.

By the conclusion, everything has been wrapped up with a tight, psychologically sound bow. From Sidney's time in high school, we learn what inspired him to write the novel. From his rise to fame, we figure out why he's roaming the country and burning his own work. From his reclusive phase, we learn what really mattered to him in life and a secret that rationalizes a decade-long sense of guilt about the book, his success, and his inability to make the decisions throughout the course of his life.

It's all so, very pat, and in that too-perfect shape of the character's life, the movie isn't really embracing its mysteries. It's simply telling us what we need to know, and the process of watching the movie is one of simply waiting for the explanations and rationales to be handed to us on a well-organized platter.

Since Christensen intercuts the three periods of Sidney's life, it's probably best to give a brief account of how each one begins. In high school, he's a socially awkward but fairly egotistical teen, offering a short story about a kid's masturbation fantasy for an essay assignment about the meaning of life. Sidney is also confronted by a girl across the street named Melody (Elle Fanning), who has had a crush on him since they were kids. She wants to get to know the shy guy who spies on her bedroom with binoculars. Meanwhile, Brett (Blake Jenner), a popular football player, wants Sidney's help to retrieve something the two buried when they were kids.

After the publication of his first novel a few years later, Sidney is married but separated. He's up for a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, and the book has garnered some controversy. The debate becomes even more heated when a young man, who owned multiple copies of the novel and often talked about it, commits suicide.

Several years later, a bearded, scraggly-haired Sidney is moving west, walking and stowing away on trains with a hound dog in tow. A mysterious man (played by Kyle Chandler), who seems to be a cop, is following the loner author's trail.

There's little to Sidney beyond his self-important bluster, his poor or selfish decision-making, and the screenplay's overly calculated mystery about how his past has affected the other periods of his life. He's not a sympathetic figure, although Christensen and Dolan are clearly enamored with the idea of the character—an intellectual rebel, destined to be misunderstood or appreciated for all the wrong reasons, while still sticking to his ways. Everything here is a romantic fantasy of some sort, from Sidney's naïve relationship with Melody, to his persecution by unseen controversy-mongers, and to his ultimate transformation into a wanderer, destroying the very things he has created as a definitive act of rebellion.

He's insufferable at time, really, and it doesn't help that there isn't a single character who exists to counter those traits. Everyone is either in awe of him or a means of creating some demon by which Sidney will be haunted—from his mother (played by Michelle Monaghan), who's portrayed as inattentive or too hands-on depending on the needs of the story, to Brett, who exists to provide Sidney with the tale that makes him famous. Melody does challenge him, not for his personality but for his philandering, but otherwise, she's here as a symbol of what Sidney's life could have been.

As an idea, the story is intriguing, but its late turns and moralizing feel false. The Vanishing of Sidney Hall does, of course, explain everything about the character's gradual downfall, but so much of that process is dependent on contrived circumstances. The lesson is that Sidney's life is only part of some big tapestry, intertwined with the lives and experiences of other people. The movie says that, but given how Sidney is the be-all and end-all of the entirety of this narrative, it certainly doesn't believe that idea.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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