Film Review: The Vanishing of Sidney Hall

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I went into this film, much how I often do with indie dramas, without much information about the movie itself other than knowing that Elle Fanning was in the cast (and I’ll watch any movie she’s cast in). When I read the plot summary of the film stating that it was about a former writer who after his ascent to stardom, decides to throw a disappearing act ala J.D. Salinger and travels across America’s libraries and bookstores so that he can burn his Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, Suburban Tragedy, I decided to give this movie a go instead of my default horror film selection.

The film is directed by former frontman of the rock band Stellastarr, Shawn Christensen, who also helped co-write the script with Jason Dolan. Christensen proved to be a competent storyteller and director a couple of years ago when he won an Academy Award for the short film, Curfew in 2012.

We’re first introduced to the precocious Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman) whilst he’s reading an essay for his English class where he describes a girl he used to fantasize about and masturbate to. Some of the students giggle, while others are appalled, namely the English teacher who wants to report him to the principal. Honestly, I had to suspend belief there for a moment, cause I can’t see anyone in my high school getting away with reading an essay about masturbation in class (the teacher never would’ve allowed a student to read it all the way through without truncating it before it went into NSFW realm). However, I can see why the director opened with that scene, we, the audience are supposed to believe that Sidney Hall isn’t your typical teenager. He’s got talent and talented people can get away with being blunt as long they’re being creative about it.

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Sidney isn’t particularly likable at first, but Christensen provides a “save the cat!” scene, where Sidney agrees to help jock and bully Brett Newport (Blake Jenner) with a favor if Brett in return promises to no longer bully the nerdy outcast at their school. Suddenly, we’re thought to believe that maybe Sidney isn’t such a jerk after all, but merely a misunderstood genius. Which is why we won’t bat an eye when he cheats on his wife (Elle Fanning) later on in life, because after all he can’t be too awful if he did that one act of kindness so many years ago!

The story is told in three parts, teenage Sidney, twenty-something successful Sidney, and thirty-year-old Sidney. Throughout the film we get scenes from all those three-time frames as we try to piece together exactly what happened that inspired Sidney’s debut novel, and also wish to know what caused him to become a hobo-looking book-burning nomad later on in life.

After viewing the film, I noticed that the reviews for it weren’t so positive. However, I loved the movie (maybe it’s because it’s about a writer who strikes it big but then has a major fall from grace moment, coincidentally that’s what made love Words too). Adult Sidney sees himself being stalked by “The Seeker,” (Kyle Chandler) which we don’t exactly know why he’s being pursued by him (if he the authorities or someone he wronged?). I thought the reveal of Chandler’s character was rather clever.

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I found the film to be compelling, emotional, and at times too raw and visceral but you can’t help but keep on watching and hoping that your hero will find some peace.

I recommend this to anyone who loves their indie movies to amp the tragedy and downplay cliché happy endings because if you’re looking for one you won’t find one here.

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