There’s a bit of the J.D. Salinger mythos in this film by director Shawn Christensen and co-writer Jason Dolan about an American novelist who disappears after publishing only two books, but ones that became major cultural icons. The major oddity about “The Vanishing of Sidney Hall,” however, is the peculiarly complicated narrative structure the scripters have decided to impose on their overly pretentious story.
The titular protagonist, played by Logan Lerman, is introduced as a high school student whose talent for raw—and as we are constantly reminded, “honest”—writing (although the few excerpts we hear from it don’t sound particularly impressive) impresses one of his teachers (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but turns off others, as well as most of his classmates. Exceptions to the generally negative view are Brett Newport (Blake Jenner), the school’s bullying quarterback, and “secret admirer” Melody (Elle Fanning), who just happens to live across the street.
This chronologically earliest segment of the film focuses on Sidney’s romancing of Melody and his agreement to help Brett recover a lunchbox that they buried years ago as children. It concludes, however, with a tragedy that causes Sidney to leave home with Melody, in the process abandoning his disabled father (Darren Pettie) and hysterically hovering mother (Michelle Monaghan), who is the catalyst behind the tragedy—or tragedies, as it turns out.
The middle segment is set seven or eight years later. Hall is now a much-feted writer whose first novel, “Suburban Tragedy,” is—as his pushy agent Harold (Nathan Lane) ebulliently informs him, on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize. He is also married to Melody. But he is moody and haunted by memories from his past, and cheats on his wife with Alexandra (Margaret Qualley), Harold’s daughter. His attitude is worsened by the fact that one of his readers, who identifies obsessively with the novel’s message, kills himself, leading to its being banned in Montana (apparently the new equivalent of being banned in Boston) and removed from school curricula—and being attacked by a pompous politician. Hall also is diagnosed with a serious medical condition. After another tragic occurrence, he disappears from public view entirely.
That leads to the story’s third part set some years afterward, in which a bedraggled vagrant is going from city to city, burning copies of Hall’s two books that he finds in bookstores and libraries. He is being pursued by a mysterious investigator (Kyle Chandler), who finally catches up with him, and damned if it isn’t Sidney himself! Though he’s initially resistant to having his story told, he eventually acquiesces, and we learn the origin of the discontent Hall has suffered since high school and the nature of the tragedies that caused it.
The way in which Christensen and Dolan have chosen to present this story is to cut each of these three sections into bits and then shuffle them together, so that one follows all of them in fragmented form as they all proceed chronologically within their own limited timeframes. This is frankly irritating as it unfolds, simply because the jumps from one segment to the other are so often arbitrary. The purpose seems to be nothing more than withholding each of the big “reveals” to the close, but since all of them come across as either obvious or melodramatic (or both), the effort hardly seems worth it.
On the other hand, if one contemplates restructuring the movie and simply presenting it in pure chronological sequence, what you come up with doesn’t strike one as appreciably better. The narrative overall just has that spuriously elevated, literary feel to it that can’t be improved by rearranging things, like furniture in your parlor. Some serious rewriting is needed.
On the other hand, “Sidney Hall” has a stellar cast, headed by the talented Lerman, who after his impressive lead turn in James Schamus’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” in 2016 continues his streak of strong work (though oddly he’s least convincing playing the character at the actor’s true age in his mid-twenties than in his younger or older incarnations). Elle Fanning is also more persuasive in the high school scenes than in her later ones. The rest of the cast mostly acquits itself more than adequately, with Chandler doing an especially nice, laid-back job. The exception is Monaghan, who comes on way too strong as Sidney’s gonzo mother.
Technically the picture is fine, with Daniel Katz’s excellent widescreen cinematography a standout. Its virtues, of course, will best appreciated on the big screen, where most people will likely not see it. You have to sympathize with editor Sabine Hoffman, who was faced with the daunting task of trying to keep the narrative from becoming choppy in the face of Christensen and Dolan’s decision to structure the story as they have. That she fails isn’t entirely her fault.
In the end, “Sidney Hall” suffers from an air of affectation and artificiality made worse by the convoluted structure imposed on the narrative. Its ultimate revelations aren’t worth the gymnastics it takes to get to them.