Dir. William Maher, 2008, US, 101 minutes, colour.
In Sleepwalking, an 11-year-old girl is abandoned by her mother and left with her undependable uncle, who shows the child just how dysfunctional their family can be. William Maher (not the talk show host) has made a dark film, shot in dark hues, and set against a wintry landscape.
Too leaden for the critics or the audience, this is not a date movie, unless your family or your companion is in therapy, and Sleepwalking will struggle to find an audience despite its star power, taking just under $50,000 in its first week of limited release in the US. Iconic scenes of the bleak American landscape in winter won't be enough to find the film a foreign audience either, although Dennis Hopper and Charlize Theron can always bring in some fans.
Jolene (Theron) and her daughter Tara (Robb) are homeless, thrown out of a house for growing pot, and they take refuge in the home of Jolene's brother, barely-employed construction worker James (Stahl). Settled life doesn't suit young mother Jolene, and after turning tricks in front of James and Tara, she abandons them.
Things spiral downward fatalistically, as James loses his job after taking a day off to search for his sister. He and Tara then set out for the farm where James and Jolene grew up in rural Utah, where the cruel authoritarian paterfamilias, (Hopper), makes it painfully clear why James and Jolene are so incapable of living happy lives.
There is a relentlessly grim tone to Sleepwalking, as a family struggles without money or hope. Juan Ruiz Anchia's camera also gives the film a uniformly grim look. Maher has a feel for the drama of living together in a small space, helped by production designer Paki Smith, and for the challenges of working for low wages with others whose lives are just as grim. Woody Harrelson provides some of the film's few laughs as a wise-ass co-worker on the crew.
Eve n though Zac Stanford's script seems crafted with a cookie-cutter, Maher communicates the pain of poverty with gritty realism. He has also cast his characters well, and directed some fine performances.
Charlize Theron, who also produced the film, is convincing as a self-destructive mother, building on the believability that she brought to the role of an outcast in Monster. As James, an uncle with a strong heart and a feeble mind, Nick Stahl brings dignity to a complex role. AnnaSophia Robb, as Tara, brings a sad maturity to her character, and conveys the chagrin that her plight is far from over. The cast's weak link is Hopper, as the violent punitive father, right out of an Old Testament version of family abuse.
There is a picaresque quality to Sleepwalking that feels lopsided, as the film ambles from sibling saga, to road movie, to family confrontation. Theron is present in early scenes, but disappears until the end. Harrelson enlivens the leaden drama for a scene or two, and then leaves. Hopper is not onscreen until midway through the movie, and then scourges the story, beating the oxygen out of it, as if to make up for lost time. It's hard not to watch Sleepwalking as a low-budget movie constricted by its stars' shooting schedules.
Icon Entertainment Intl.
Denver & Delilah
Juan Ruiz Anchia