The Vanishing of Sidney Hall tries to tell the story of a wayward author’s befuddled life, but the true mystery lies in what went wrong behind the camera.
The year 2018 is becoming a blockbuster season. By the time April comes, audiences will have already been clobbered by a rampage of giant animals, interdimensional travel and an alien invasion.
Which is why a quieter release like The Vanishing of Sidney Hall seems appealing right now. It was released at the beginning of March by the remarkably consistent A24, whom we can thank for A Ghost Story, Lady Bird and The Disaster Artist, among many others, just last year.
The film’s complicated structure asks viewers to follow the life of an author battling demons at three different points in his life, interweaved sporadically rather than chronologically. The ambition, and it is a lofty one, is to pose one question: What went wrong with Sidney Hall?
Unfortunately, viewers are more likely to ask, what went wrong with Sidney Hall?
It’s a big question, because most of the pieces seem like they’ll work. The premise itself is an irresistible mystery box. The film opens as Hall (Logan Lerman) reads out a grotesquely sexual creative writing piece to his high school classmates, who listen in bemusement. He wants to be a writer when he grows up — and, apparently, he succeeds, because not long after we flash forward a few years to his very own book signing for his debut novel.
We’re asked to follow a lot at the same time. We see the beginning of a somewhat off-putting romance with his next-door neighbor (Elle Fanning) as we watch their marriage crumble years down the line. We see a classmate approach Hall for a mysterious favor as the premise of Hall’s debut novel resembles the classmate. We also see an unnamed detective attempting to track down Hall in the furthest timeline, where Hall has lived up to the film’s title.
The complex knots might be too difficult for director and co-writer Shawn Christensen to untangle in his second feature directorial project. Ultimately, the movie’s head-scratching structure doesn’t prove to be necessary, and probably would have been better in a chronological flow.
Christensen appears to be ahead of himself in trying to use time as a storytelling device. It’s rarely done or pulled off — Christopher Nolan’s Memento, 2000, is among the most notable examples of a movie with events that peel backward.
Whereas Memento simmers into an explosion at its ending-beginning in a way that rewards rewatch, Sidney Hall simply withholds information from the viewer as a substitution for cleverness.
At 26, Lerman has moved past teen films like the Percy Jackson series and Perks of Being a Wallflower and into deeper stuff like 2014’s intense war story Fury. Here is the first time his cracks are on display — while solid in the tormented teenager/young adult phases (his forte), he’s less believable as a surrendered adult. The wig and fake beard don’t help.
Fanning’s portion of the script has her behave like no human ever has — she leaves Hall fan letters for his stories published in a school newspaper she doesn’t go to, and mutely scampers away when he spots her at his mailbox. She does seem to adapt to the tri-timeline challenge with more poise than Lerman once she’s afforded realism.
The film isn’t irredeemable. Darren Morze’s music is beautiful, swelling at the exact right moments. At every 30-minute mark, the film weaves together significant events from each timeline, Sabine Hoffman’s editing giving a bravado of importance. It’s just a shame Christensen chooses to reveal unimpactful information at these moments.
The story is too far ahead of Christensen — too much of what’s unimportant is developed early, and key information isn’t revealed until too late. Clever plotting is one thing. This just isn’t fair. ••