A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is a mature drama about a mysterious, reclusive writer that stars Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, and Kyle Chandler. It's not appropriate for younger kids, given its strong language ("f--k," "s--t," and more) and heavy topics (including the suggestion of child rape), but it might appeal to older teens. Watch out for two instances of parents beating teens: One is used to indicate longstanding abuse, and one leads to disaster. There's also talk of suicide and a non-graphic scene in which it's suggested that two characters are having sex, as well as some smoking and drinking (the "boozy writer" stereotype comes into play).
What's the story?
Mixing episodes from three parts of the main character's life, THE VANISHING OF SIDNEY HALL looks at the reasons behind the self-imposed exile of a famous writer (the titular Sidney, played by co-producer Logan Lerman). Teen Sidney is an outsider with talent who's encouraged by a kind teacher (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), attracted to mysterious neighbor Melody (Elle Fanning), and forging a sort-of friendship with bully/big man on campus Brett (Blake Jenner). Mid-20s Sidney is a wildly successful author whose Catcher in the Rye-like hit novel is getting him a fervent following. But he's also struggling with his marriage -- and possibly his sanity. At 30, Sidney is a drifter, burning his own books in stores and libraries around the country. And he's being tracked by a determined fellow (Kyle Chandler) with secrets of his own.
Is it any good?
Despite a talented cast and appealing cinematography, this drama never manages to escape from under its heavy tortured artist/boozy writer world. Moving back and forth between the three timelines manages to keep things somewhat interesting, but The Vanishing of Sidney Hall does so in a heavy-handed enough way that it suggests the story's tragedies before they come together. And there are too many unanswered questions -- "Why didn't they go to the police?" "Why did their relationship fail?" -- to set the story (and viewers) free. Things open promisingly enough, with teen Sidney reading his wildly inappropriate, Philip Roth-style story to his high school English class. But that boldness and wit is mostly talked about from then on, rather than shown. Where 2017's Rebel in the Rye offered a window into an artist's process, Vanishing intentionally keeps us at arm's length. Unfortunately, that means we have to rely on glowing accounts from fans to believe in Sidney's brilliance.
That's an important flaw, considering that Sidney's seminal work is inspired directly by the events of the first timeline. We never really understand his reaction to those events because we never learn the contents of the book. We know it inspires some scary behavior in deranged fans, but that's all. Why is it so powerful? What, in the end, did he say about those events when given the chance to tell the world? And his romance with Melody, clearly intended to be central to his motivations in the film, is given horribly short shrift: We never learn why they're in such dire straits in the second timeline. It's rather like La La Land: If this was the love of their lives, what could tear them apart? Those lingering, serious issues rob Vanishing of its potential power. We're left instead with gloomy-writer clichés (he uses a typewriter, which makes him ... more authentic?; as a teen, he has photos of the likes of Oscar Wilde pinned to his wall; and he drinks, drinks, drinks) rather than an authentic experience. What starts as hopefully a riff on the self-imposed exile of J.D. Salinger or perhaps Syd Barrett unfortunately never leaves the ground.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether stories like the one in The Vanishing of Sidney Hall glamorize the idea of the tortured artist/boozy writer. What are the consequences of that kind of message around drinking?
What else might Sidney and Brett have done, once their evidence was unusable? Was it immoral for them to stay silent?
Why do you think Sidney and Melody's relationship was on the rocks? Why do you think the filmmakers never spelled it out? Is that effective storytelling, or did it leave you with unanswered questions?
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