After a night of heavy drinking and writing, Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman) tells one of his assistants that his freshly penned pages are “just one long, intoxicating masturbation session with no climax.” Aside from the intoxicating part, his words are an accurate description of Shawn Christensen's solipsistic The Vanishing of Sidney Hall, a film that maddeningly over-complicates each of its numerous storylines—and all for the sake of aggrandizing the boy genius at its center. The film fits squarely in the tradition of films inspired by J.D. Salinger's notorious reclusiveness rather than the literary giant's actual writing, using his antisocial defiance and Catcher in the Rye's inextricable association with the murders and suicides committed by its most ardent devotees not as a catalyst for plumbing Sidney's psychological problems, but as a means of empty posturing used to amplify his personal suffering.
Despite its persistent caginess in exploring the roots of Sidney's emotional turmoil and motivations for disappearing, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall takes every opportunity to assure us of his mind-boggling talent. Everyone from his high school English teacher, Duane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a secretly sensitive jock, Brett (Blake Jenner), to the quirky girl next door, Melody (Elle Fanning), fawn over him at every turn. And when Sidney later goes off the grid following the massive success of his first novel, the blandly titled Suburban Tragedy, a mysterious man (Kyle Chandler)—whose later-to-be-revealed true identity is sure to elicit groans—spends over a year tracking him down to assure us that no one's talent, success, or happiness matters in the world of this film aside from that of Sidney Hall. Yet the film's portrait of Sidney paints him as a fairly typical suburban kid who's shy and sheltered rather than passionate or intriguing. One would never guess he was a universally adored prodigy had the film not belabored the fact that his novel nearly won the Pulitzer Prize and is considered the next Great American Novel.
Director Shawn Christensen's film maddeningly over-complicates each of its numerous storylines.
But The Vanishing of Sidney Hall's most troubling aspects lie not in its shallow or misguided characterizations, but in the myriad ways that the story's nonlinear structure and Sidney's recurring hallucinations needlessly obfuscate certain truths in order to foster sympathy for the precocious young writer while building an impenetrable mystique around him. Bouncing between three time periods in Sidney's life—as his talent blossoms in high school, during the time of his burgeoning fame and tumultuous marriage to Melody, and finally his years as a gruff drifter hiding out in the desert—the film constantly hints at some greater catalyst for both the inspiration for Suburban Tragedy and his growing guilt, paranoia, and alienation.
Yet while part of the mystery is seemingly wrapped up in the unseen contents of a tin lunchbox that Brett asks Sidney to dig up and hold on to for safekeeping, Christensen is overly coy in the way he presents this subplot, further muddying the facts by using Sidney's visions as a means of toying with the audience. This callous use of Sidney's potential mental health issues purely as a narrative device is made even more problematic by the film's similar treatment of another character's trauma, whose rippling aftereffects are only tracked in as much as they directly affect Sidney.
Even during the stretches where the mystery angle fades into the background, the film only indulges in an array of disparate and twee coming-of-age and tortured-artist clichés, among them the love story involving Melody (the cute photographer who really “gets” Sidney) and the protagonist's struggles with substance abuse, his mommy (Michelle Monaghan) issues, and his affair with a young admirer, Alexandra (Margaret Qualley). As these play out increasingly like disconnected vignettes rather than as part of a cohesive whole, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall veers further into incoherence, with each character and narrative strand revealed to exist solely to convey either how brilliant Sidney is or to magnify the extent of his suffering. The seesaw of effect of oscillating between extolling Sidney's genius and lingering on his anguish begins to feel like a child slowly burning an ant with a magnifying glass, occasionally taking breaks to truly savor the harm he or she is committing.