Perhaps the greatest tragedy of The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is that nobody told writer/director Shawn Christensen that his gag-on-impact green smoothie of dated arthouse tropes was, in fact, a comedy. The saga a pretty boy ink-jock who becomes internally consumed by his raw power of his wordsmanship sounds like a segment where YouTube stars produce the plays they wrote in high school. Instead, we’re treated to a hauntingly sincere attempt to convince us that the numbingly overwrought tragedy of Sidney Hall’s life is supposed to make us cry into the pages of empty notebooks. No such luck.
The baffling earnestness of this dopey story does admittedly intrigue in its first half. The story cuts between three different time periods, but spends the majority of this segment in Sidney’s high school years. These scenes mostly work in large part due to the efforts of a game leading man flying far below his station. From the opening sequence where Sidney reads a lengthy diatribe about masterbating to his class, we know we’re about to follow an insufferable twerp in the making. This makes it all the more impressive that Logan Lerman actually manages to find hints of awkward charm in Sidney. We’re watching a young man who is on the verge of thriving or snapping, and Lerman earns some tension as he rides that line.
The film toys with us as it promises something more sinister brewing underneath this high school storyline. We see Sidney in his mid 20s warding off controversy after a book he’s written has inspired violence and in his 30s getting his Jack Kerouac on (while rocking a dollar store fake beard) as he travels the country burning copies of his work in bookstores. The first half works because it largely keeps these sequences at bay, but when they take over, the whole story flies off the rails.
These two threads take place in a world where Elle Fanning can change her hair and “convincingly” play a 26-year-old married woman. They completely disregard any logic or authenticity that the film was scratching at before, descending into a romp of continuous gut punches, each one goofier than the last. You can practically feel Christensen frothing at the mouth as his strange passion project tortures its characters before our eyes. Oh, how literary.
Christensen’s direction feels like the product of torn apart auteur set notes found in a production office recycling bin. There’s never a moment of subtly here, every moment drowning in it’s own presumed importance. It’s not a particularly good looking film either. Instead of allowing each of the three stories to take on their own particular look and feel, each exist in a world where color has been completely drowned out. It’s the bleak and grey world of a person who lives only within themselves.
Ultimately, it’s shocking that A24 chose to take this film on. It feels like a wannabe entry into their catalogue, with one pedantic choice after another enveloping the audience into a wave of pretension. It sets back the talents of actors who deserve much better than this, particularly Lerman, who is grasping at straws for a prestige role to no avail. Everybody wants to write their own Holden Caulfield, but The Vanishing of Sidney Hall shows us that not everybody should.