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Original title: Sidney Hall

D: Shawn Christensen / 120m

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

A publishing phenomenon, Sidney Hall (Lerman) writes a first novel called Suburban Tragedy that is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; he’s only eighteen when he starts writing it. By the time he’s twenty-four, he’s written a follow-up, State of Execution; both novels sit atop the New York Times Best Seller list. But Sidney isn’t happy. His past, and in particular, the source of inspiration for Suburban Tragedy, haunts him. He has married his teenage sweetheart, Melody (Fanning), but is unable to resist the attentions of his publisher’s daughter, Alexandra (Qualley), leading to an affair. As time passes, Sidney becomes more and more reclusive, until he disappears altogether. Soon after, a spate of arson attacks in bookshops and libraries, where the only books burnt are Hall’s, attracts the attention of a police detective (Chandler). Tracing the arson attacks across the Midwest, the detective becomes convinced that the perpetrator is Hall himself. But why would he do such a thing, and why disappear in the first place? What could have made Sidney Hall throw away everything he’d achieved?

Non-linear stories such as The Vanishing of Sidney Hall have two benefits: they can tease out important plot points in a way that keeps the viewer intrigued and wanting to know more, and they can reshape a movie’s storyline to ensure a greater emotional or dramatic impact when the mystery (whatever it is) is finally revealed. Shawn Christensen’s second feature aims for both, and is moderately successful as a whole, but makes one fatal flaw that stops the movie from achieving the goals Christensen has set for it: it makes Hall himself too miserable – and unrelentingly so – for the viewer to feel much sympathy for him. While the roots of his melancholy lie in a terrible tragedy that he feels responsible for, it’s a long time before the movie reveals this. And by the time that it does, and those all important plot points have been left as clues for us to piece together, the movie has become lethargic and banal. A late-on reveal feels forced (and less than entirely credible), while key moments are replayed without ever adding any greater emotional or dramatic impact. At the same time, the movie’s structure is both its best and worst component.

Something of a labour of love for Christensen, the movie often wears its heart on its sleeve, and though Hall is the kind of tortured literary genius we’ve seen so many times before, the co-writer/director surrounds him with a number of supporting characters that often prove more interesting. Sidney’s mother (Monaghan) is the kind of toxic parent who blames their child for being born and ruining their life, while his English teacher (Abdul-Mateen II) is so desperate to ride Hall’s coat-tails to literary success that his neediness is embarrassing. These are stories that, on their own, could comprise a number of separate movies, but Christensen keeps them in Sidney’s orbit, satellites bouncing off his celebrity, and feeling hard done by because of it. In the end, Sidney’s determination to punish himself pushes everyone away from him (hence, in part, his disappearance), but the script always makes it feel deserved. As the complex literary genius, Lerman is a solid presence, better at playing him as a teenager than as an adult, while Fanning offers strong support as the love of his life. There are good performances throughout, and the movie is beautifully photographed by Daniel Katz, but in its themes and ambitions, it lacks the overall cogency needed to make it all gel.

Rating: 6/10 – a worthy attempt at portraying the devastating effects of one tragic event on a young man’s much deserved success, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall falls short thanks to its title character’s unnecessary (and hard to condone) self-flagellation; with its insistence on breaking the story down into bite-size chunks of culpable exposition, it’s also a movie that says a lot but forgets to add enough substance to back it all up.