When I tell you that Sidney Hall is a movie about a teenager who decides to write a novel and the impact that choice has on his life when the novel becomes a massive hit, you may imagine a quirky indie comedy about a defiant, but brilliant outcast who does the unlikely, has misadventures and grows as a person. I did. And it’s a movie I was excited to see. What I found out was that while Sidney Hall does tell a version of that tale, it also relates a story that’s much more sweeping and unexpected.
Logan Lerman stars as the titular Sidney, and we follow him through three phases of his life — age 18, age 24, age 30. The film is not presented in chronological order, rather we jump around in time and the details of the story that ultimately shapes Sidney are revealed layer-by-layer, piece-by-piece. Sidney Hall succeeds thanks in large part to an understanding of restraint. Everything we are told is on a need-to-know basis (a fact that could well alienate some viewers). Only after the picture is complete can we realize how delicate a puzzle has been pieced together.
Director and co-writer Shawn Christiansen takes some cues from J.D. Salinger’s life and times, fashioning Sidney as a scribe of short stories who graduates to a controversial novel that goes on to rock the world. But Sidney isn’t a rebel or a Holden Caulfield type. He’s a storytelling empath with a complicated home life who stumbles into some new and unexpectedly powerful relationships. And so, Sidney Hall is steeped in drama, but it’s also a film about storytelling — the stories we create, those that are created for us and those that create us.
All of this is made possible by two factors. 1. A script that is sufficiently compelling for the audience to go along with the deliberate omissions and complex structure. And 2. An exceptional cast that fulfills the ambitious demands of the story. Logan Lerman has been consistently impressive since The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and Sidney delivers him his most demanding role to date. While he seems perhaps a tad more natural at certain ages, he manages the time jumps quite well. Blake Jenner takes up the mantle of another teenage Adonis, but this time in a role that reveals unexpected depth and emotion. We haven’t yet seen Jenner’s dramatic chops save for in sparing moments, but his work here makes a case for giving the guy some more versatile roles. Elle Fanning has been on a hot streak more or less since she popped up on the scene. This turn isn’t one of the more stand-out turns among her repertoire, but she does the ethereal youth role as well as ever. Michelle Monaghan’s part is extremely limited, but seeing her work against her usual type is satisfying, if brief. Nathan Lane likewise steals a few scenes in his limited role as Sidney’s agent. But the crown for most impactful supporting player belongs to Kyle Chandler, who is perhaps even more compelling than Lerman as a mysterious figure in the 30-year-old segments.
Sidney Hall is the kind of movie that feels polarizing, even as you watch it. The sense I had is that this movie will either hit people as very good or very bad, and there won’t be a lot of people in the middle ground. For me, it worked quite effectively, but that conclusion is absolutely not universal. By way of guidance, I can only say this, if the idea of a literature-infused drama with mystery vibes appeals to you, give Sidney a chance.