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The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall


Starring Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Monaghan, Blake Jenner, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Darren Pettie, Janina Gavankar, Michael Drayer, Christina Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo and Sean Cullen.

Screenplay by Shawn Christensen & Jason Dolan.

Directed by Shawn Christensen.

Distributed by A24. 120 minutes. Rated R.

The ghost of JD Salinger must have loomed large in the mind of co-writer/director Shawn Christensen when coming up with the screenplay for The Vanishing of Sidney Hall, which deifies a young novelist who decides to chuck it all after two books. The problem is the storytelling, which the film’s protagonist would undoubtedly chide as obvious, over-wrought and somewhat masturbatory (a favorite word of this character).

This literary mystery turns out to be neither mysterious, nor even particularly literal.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall follows its protagonist from teen outcast, to literary acclaim, to train-hopping hobo. The narrative flitters back and forth between three periods in his life, trying to give some gravity to his long, winding and sort of clichéd road.

The frame story itself shows great promise. Several years after an upcoming author has disappeared – he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, which he wrote in high school with the highly pretentious title Suburban Tragedy, and his second novel was even more acclaimed – a mysterious homeless man is appearing in book stores and libraries around the country, tossing all of Hall’s books into wastebaskets and setting them on fire. (Luckily for him, these stores and libraries all still have metal trash cans which won’t melt, rather than the plastic ones we all have been using in the modern world.)

What if this homeless guy might be the author himself?

Okay, as concepts go, that’s a grabber. Too bad the story that follows really doesn’t live up to its concept.

The film takes three periods in the life of Sidney Hall – played in all three eras by Logan Lerman – and throws them in a blender.

First off, he is a smart-ass kid with some writing skills. He’s too cool for school and kind of hot for the cute girl across the street (Elle Fanning) who really gets him. They dream about finding a house whose picture she tore out of Modern Architecture and going to live there. (This “dream home” sort of talks to Hall’s and his girlfriend’s offbeat energies – it is big and very modern, but it’s also cold, impersonal and looks more like a compound than a home.) He’s also in the midst of a toxic relationship with his abusive mother (Michelle Monaghan) and hiding a lunch box that contains a big, tragic secret about the big man on campus (Blake Jenner).

The second part has him as a successful writer, topping the New York Times best-seller list and getting nominated for a Pulitzer only eight months out of high school (yeah, that happens…) and releasing his even more acclaimed follow up. He has married the cute girl next door and is the darling of the literati… Then everything comes crashing down on him when he doesn’t win the Pulitzer, he starts a zipless affair with his publisher’s hot daughter and one of his fans commits suicide after reading one of his books.

Finally, years later we find him and his dog and his backpack, thought to be dead by the world at large, wandering aimlessly around the country, hopping trains and burning books and sleeping outside. He is being tracked by a mysterious investigator known only as “The Seeker” (Kyle Chandler), though when the audience finally finds out who he really is it is a massive disappointment. His roundabout trek is leading him to the “dream house” – which he bought as a last extravagance before abandoning his old life, to keep a teenaged promise to meet his now former wife there on a specific date when they are 30.

Honestly, Sidney mostly comes off as a pretentious asshole. You can tell he is a serious writer, because he wrote both of his novels on a typewriter. His only concession to modern conveniences was that he used an electric typewriter, not a manual. Eventually, when he hit the road, he went even more old school, doing all his writing in longhand.

Everyone around him – his high school teacher, his girlfriend, his agent, his publicist, a fellow Pulitzer Prize nominee – assures him over and over that he is a great writer, the voice of a generation. That’s probably just as well, because we’d never know otherwise – in the rare occasions that his “writings” are read aloud, they don’t seem all that special. Apparently not only are these supporting characters trying to convince Hall, they are also trying to convince the skeptical audience. Director Christensen must have missed the “show, don’t tell” class in his screenwriting course.

But, then again, this should be no surprise, because it turns out that every character only exists to be plot points to Hall’s life. Their triumphs and heartbreaks are only reflections on (or contributions to) Hall’s brilliance and his sense of a tragic life. His overbearing mother, his martyred late high school friend, his worshipping girlfriend/wife, his doting publisher, his scheming mistress, the mysterious man investigating him, his exasperated publicist, his biggest fan – they all only live and breathe and die to nourish Hall’s writing, his sense of being misunderstood and mistreated, and eventually his paranoia.

He’s a writer as a hipster artiste, gazing at his navel and living an “untainted and self-reliant” lifestyle. He is writing just for himself as therapy, sure that if people like him that they are wrong, refusing to share his work because… well, what’s the point?

Sadly, “Well, what’s the point?” describes way too much of The Vanishing of Sidney Hall.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: March 2, 2018.

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