How a brilliant and clean-shaven young novelist could end up living like a bearded hobo is the central mystery of Sidney Hall, the sophomore feature from writer-director Shawn Christensen (Before I Disappear). The good-looking film scrambles three different timelines to tells its needlessly complicated — rather than complex — story: Sidney as a high-school student, being egged on by an inspirational teacher and interested in the cute girl across the street; Sidney as a young married man and successful author whose world starts to collapse around him; and finally Sidney as an aimless drifter, a poète maudit who has abandoned and rejected society.
How he transformed from one Sidney into the other and then the next is treated like a big secret that is not only kept for the last reel but even necessitates a detective-type character who chases him around the U.S., desperately trying to get hold of the formerly successful young novelist in the third strand. While the precociously talented Sidney, played by Logan Lerman, is not an uninteresting character, the artificially constructed nature of the narrative gives the supposedly shocking revelations way too much importance, essentially subjugating any sense of character development and flaws to its mystery-type structure. After its premiere at Sundance, this looks like it might become a direct-to-VOD title, some gorgeous widescreen cinematography notwithstanding.
The premise of the film, written by the director and Jason Dolan, is certainly an interesting one: A high-school kid with a raw talent for “honest writing,” Sidney manages to pen a novel in his free time. Thanks to some help from his comprehensive and supportive teacher (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), it becomes a best-seller and even a Pulitzer contender, though the novel’s dark subject matter and its real-life inspirations aren’t immediately revealed. Sidney manages to woo Melody (Elle Fanning), a secret admirer who lives across the street, and the couple gets married early. However, they don’t last as the novel’s impact on its young readership takes a turn for the negative, some people end up dead and the work is banned in some states.
After a second book that’s another best-seller but that leaves Sidney artistically unsatisfied, the writer disappears off the grid, traveling cross-country with a dog and a few cans of food. His movements can only be traced by tracking his visits to bookstores where he sets fire to all the copies he can find of his own novels. The disappearance and fires have also attracted the attention of a mysterious character referred to as the “searcher” in the credits and played by Kyle Chandler, who is trying to hunt Sidney down.
Told in straightforward fashion, this story arc seems to make sense, but Christensen and editor Sabine Hoffman feel the need to constantly jump back and forth between the three story strands with no real ideas or storytelling objective other than to conceal the big reveal for as long as possible. Some important secondary characters are thus introduced, including a jock at school (a typecast Blake Jenner) with a secret buried in a box; Sidney’s nosy mother (Michelle Monaghan), who would like to know what her brooding son is up to; Sidney’s jovial literary agent (Nathan Lane, also typecast), who’s got next to nothing to do; and Alexandra (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who might have been dating Sidney while he was married. Or maybe not.
The result is a necessarily fragmented-feeling and incomplete picture for most of Sidney Hall’s running time, which would not necessarily be a bad thing if Christensen had supplied clear sub-themes that could’ve buttressed the main arc. But most of the time, the cutting between the stories feels either random or the connections only weak, like when Christensen cuts back and forth between a fight with Sidney’s wife and a fight with his mother much earlier. What is the film really trying to suggest? That Sidney has a problem with women, has an Oedipus complex or can’t help but always ending up fighting the ones he loves most? Maybe all three? It’s never clear. The final revelation also isn’t the kind of shocking eye-opener that sheds a completely new light on everything that has come before it. If anything, the answers to some of the questions, such as why Sidney went all Fahrenheit 451 on his own novels or what exactly Alexandra’s story had to do with anything, can be guessed in hindsight but are never quite articulated.
After last year’s Indignation, Lerman here again suggests he’s got an impressive range and maturity for his years, convincingly playing the same character in very different circumstances and mindsets over the span of more than a decade. (The only thing that’s unconvincing is the oldest Sidney’s facial hair, a kind of cross between a Halloween hipster beard and an old-school white Messiah look.) The film’s best scenes are the ones he shares with Chandler’s character. Even though the latter is never really developed, you can practically see Chandler constantly up Lerman’s game. The rest of the cast is decent is largely underwritten roles.
Shot entirely in New Mexico, this Hall at least looks gorgeous.
Production companies: Super Crispy? Entertainment, Fuzzy Logic Pictures
Cast: Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Blake Jenner, Michelle Monaghan, Darren Pettie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Janina Gavankar, Nathan Lane, Margaret Qualley
Director: Shawn Christensen
Screenplay: Shawn Christensen, Jason Dolan
Producer: Jonathan Schwartz
Director of photography: Daniel Katz
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Music: Darren Morze
Casting: Richard Hicks
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)