Sleepwalking (2008) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual themes and some violence
Running time: 101 min.
Cast: Nick Stahl, AnnaSophia Robb, Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Woody Harrelson, Deborra-Lee Furness
Director: William Maher
Screenplay: Zac Stanford
Adult siblings Joleen (Theron, Aeon Flux) and James (Stahl, Sin City) have had a tough life living with an abusive father. Joleen took her younger brother and ran away from home long ago after getting pregnant, and now struggles to find the time to properly raise her soon-to-be twelve-year-old child Tara (Robb, The Reaping) while she picks up men in the hopes of gaining the cash they need to live by. One day while staying with James after Joleen ditches another aborted life, Tara awakens to discover her mother is gone. James receives a letter with some money and a partial explanation, but can't seem to find a way to please Tara, eventually costing him the job that doesn't even cover his bills. Protective services steps in, sending Tara to foster care, while James is homeless, and practically hopeless. All three try to eke out a happy existence, but the more they try, the harder it is to be together, and the harder it is to find that ever elusive happiness, so screwed up by the past that they fear they will always make a mess at each attempt to have a happy future.
The first thing I should mention to potential viewers is that Theron, while gracing the film's promotional material prominently as well as being featured predominantly in the film's trailer, has a much smaller role than you might anticipate (though a much larger one behind the scenes as producer). Despite that, when she's on the screen, she's quite good, not afraid to look less than glamorous (she wears no make-up), but still very believable as the low income single mom whose character flaws undo whatever good she manages to build up. The actual star is Nick Stahl, hardly a household name, though he did get the starring nod in at least one blockbuster, playing John Connor in Terminator 3. I was curious as to why they went with him as the film started, but found the answer soon after -- he's a very good actor. The same goes for AnnaSophia Robb, possibly my current pick for most nuanced of the prominent child actors to headline in Hollywood.
Working from a rather downbeat script by Zac Stanford (The Chumscrubber), Sleepwalking will not be to every taste, and it may especially bother those who like uplifting films that end with a good feeling of closure for the troubles of the main players. It doesn't quite work out that way, though it remains hopeful, and I do think it will play better on the small screen, where intimate family dramas tend to work better when watching in quiet privacy. The direction by visual effects man and first-time helmer Bill Maher (not the comedian/talk show host) gets the character interplay right most of the time, only occasionally lapsing into artifice in scenes created for mood. In one scene, young Tara gives in to her assumed persona as an older and more sophisticated teenager by teasing some young boys who stare at her with mouths agape as she puffs on a cigarette and dives into a pool with her roller-skates on. That scene doesn't work, especially as it is not in keeping with the more realistic vibe of the previous hour, punctuated by an moment where the boys find and hold the girl's skates like their most cherished possession. Sometimes scenes of fantasy should be set up as such.
Despite some occasional lapses, the quality of the characterizations and strength of the stars do pay off when we see characters that have grown on us facing difficulties, especially when dealing with the prick of a father, played by a convincingly menacing Dennis Hopper (10th & Wolf, Knockaround Guys). You wonder how James could ever go back, but then you realize that his character is one of constant submission, always seeing that others are good and their displeasure with him his own fault. He genuinely thinks his father has a modicum of goodness in him, even if he can be very overbearing in his approach.
We never quite learn why Joleen leaves Tara behind, but one suspects that she feels that being on her own might be the only way to find a man that would be interested in her as something more than an evening's good time. Or perhaps she wants to make as much money as possible to be secure enough to move on to the next chapter. The ending of the film, when all things come to a head, is perhaps the weakest point, as Maher once again goes more for mood than realism. It feels like it's missing a true emotional reward for the investment we've put into the characters and their story, but the actors manage to sell it enough to keep things on track.
Some may see Sleepwalking as a dull and depressing look into lives that are shattered to the point of irreparability, but for those who like challenging dramas that strive for darker and more adult themes than most dramas to come out these days, it is an effective mood piece worth seeking out. This is a film about ordinary people in common situations, and with the exception of one fateful scene late in the film, sticks to a story that you might find relatable, if you have a notion of rural dynamics in beaten down small town America, where life can be hard and the future bleak. It's a dark cloud of a movie that not everyone will find a silver lining in, though it is definitely there.
©2008 Vince Leo