The first indication something is horribly awry in Shawn Christensen’s “Sidney Hall” announces itself early on, thanks to a scene in which the precocious eponymous character (Logan Lerman, who also produced) reads aloud an essay, one dedicated to the middle-school object of his masturbatory obsessions, in his high school class. His classmates are alternately amused and disgusted, his pal Brett (Blake Jenner) is super into it, and his teacher is rightly offended. “Sidney Hall” makes its allegiances clear immediately — Sidney is smart and funny, the teacher is a square, the world is unfairly against him — and that perspective pervades the rest of the execrable film.
Sidney gets away with the stunt (he’s even supported by an English teacher who thinks it’s justified by Sidney’s wit), and so does the film itself. Initially it seems as if “Sidney Hall” will just be another film about lone geniuses trapped in worlds where they’re misunderstood or undervalued, but the film then unspools into nearly two hours of baffling narrative choices, weak character development, and so many offensive cliches that it would be funny if they wasn’t so, well, offensive.
The film cribs from the life of J.D. Salinger without even so much as a wink (and in a funny trick of Sundance scheduling, this year’s Salinger biopic, “Rebel in the Rye,” debuted the night before “Sidney Hall” in the same venue and at the same time). After a heartbreaking event that’s strictly treated as a plot device, Sidney snappily pens a novel with the hamfisted title “Suburban Tragedy.” Like “The Catcher in the Rye,” it catapults him to heights of fame before he even has a moment to reflect on what will happen next.
But this isn’t a film about the price of fame; it’s a mystery, one told not though tension and craft, but through cross-cutting between different periods in Sidney’s life. There’s teen Sidney, on the brink of stardom. Then there’s sad mid-20s Sidney, whose personal life is falling apart and making his professional life impossible. And don’t forget crazy homeless Sidney, pushing 30 and hopping trains to get away from something (anything, probably) and being stalked across the American heartland by Kyle Chandler, who is not who he appears.
Christensen flips between the different times (and different Sidneys) with little restraint and even less skill, a game of cat-and- mouse designed to keep audiences engaged if only because they can’t believe where the hell this thing is headed (you will not believe where this thing is headed).
In his later years, Sidney has taken to sneaking into libraries and bookstores to burn copies of his books, and after casting about for motivations, “Sidney Hall” eventually roots itself in uncovering the mystery as to why. (Sidney is a “purist,” which in the world of the film means he doesn’t do internet and thus he can somehow believe it’s possible to burn all of his books.) There’s a few other so-called “mysteries” to unfold, but even the film’s wild editing can’t keep the most bizarre plot points from being painfully obvious.
Still, it’s the women who come off the worst in “Sidney Hall,” looping between shallow tropes and unbelievable personality jumps. Michelle Monaghan gets the worst of it, saddled with a part that goes from out-of-touch suburban mom to shrieking, psychotic harpy. Elle Fanning, one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, is reduced to zinging between Manic Pixie Dream Girl (she loves Bob Dylan and horror movies!) and nagging wife, while Margaret Qualley spends the film either hysterically sobbing or trying to “trick” Sidney into a relationship. No one has a shred of agency in “Sidney Hall,” even Sidney himself.
Christensen and Dolan gleefully pile increasingly terrible developments onto Sidney and the people around him. Not content just to kill off a character, they must do it in the worst way possible for the most horrifying reasons (and just when you think there are reasons enough, more keep coming). Another character bites it because of a heady mix of stupidity and Sidney’s own selfishness. That head injury everyone keeps referring to? Buckle up for its big reveal, it’s a doozy. Everything is on the table, and none of it is even remotely earned.
If you can think of something bad — something really, really bad — it will likely happen to a character in “Sidney Hall,” all in service to Sidney’s own self-indulgent story. Too bad then that, for all its tragedy and trauma, “Sidney Hall” never attempts to make its characters feel real or lovable —not even Sidney, our guide through this litany of dramatic sins. By the film’s end, “Sidney Hall” goes all in for final reveals and big-time tears, but they lend no relief. That’s something only walking out of the theater can provide.
“Sidney Hall” premiered in the Premieres section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.