Sleepwalking (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are movies that amble because the slow pace is necessary to provide insight into the characters and allow an overriding sense of atmosphere to envelop the viewer. Then there are movies whose slowness threatens to turn into stagnation and help the viewer into the arms of Morpheus. The appropriately named Sleepwalking falls into the latter category. With its generic lifeless setting (how many times have we seen this town before?) and low wattage narrative, the movie is a bit of a chore to sit through, and the predictable Pollyanna ending doesn't make things more palatable. Sleepwalking provides character arcs for its two protagonists but neither is as interesting or memorable as the performances warrant.

Some movies tell stories about the haves and have-nots. Sleepwalking offers individuals who make the have-nots look like they're prospering. Joleen (Charlize Theron) and her tween daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), find themselves homeless when Joleen's ne'er-do-well boyfriend ends up busted on drug charges. So Joleen does what she always does - imposes on her doormat of a brother, James (Nick Stahl). After spending a night in his rundown apartment, she runs off with some guy, leaving James and Tara stuck with each other. James loses his job and is evicted from his apartment. Social Services, determining that James is not a fit guardian for Tara, takes her away from him and places her in a foster setting where the other kids steal her things. So, with Joleen still out of the picture, James and Tara run away. Their destination is James and Joleen's father's farm, where they plan to lie low for a while. The Old Man (Dennis Hopper) is a piece of work - a heartless bastard without a shred of human feeling in him. All that's missing are the black hat and the Snidely Whiplash mustache. James is familiar with his father's cruelty but Tara is in for a rude awakening.

A feeling of hopelessness pervades Sleepwalking. The movie does a few things right - most notably the way it develops the relationship between James and Tara during the middle section and how her plight brings out his protective nature. The third act is a complete mess, with the Hopper caricature and the Hollywood 101 ending. Would it have been that difficult to make James' father a three-dimensional human being? Are we supposed to believe that Joleen, a woman who abandoned her daughter, represents Tara's ultimate salvation? Do first-time director William Maher and screenwriter Zac Sanford expect us to accept the tearful reunion? Wouldn't Tara be a little pissed by her mother's actions?

This is mostly James's story, which is a problem because of the low-key nature of the character. Stahl does an excellent job embodying James. He nails the essence of a man who's paralyzed by hopelessness and lethargy, but it's difficult to keep an audience interested when the protagonist has so little energy (and none is supplied by the director or the static, by-the-numbers camerawork). As Tara, AnnaSophia Robb shows fire and spirit, and it's her presence as much as Stahl's that keeps the movie from foundering during its better segments. The dynamic between the characters is so unbalanced that some will find themselves wishing the director would shift the focus to be more about Tara and less about James. Charlize Theron and Dennis Hopper aren't in much of the movie, and Woody Harrelson's part is a glorified cameo.

In a way, I was reminded of the Zooey Deschanel/Will Ferrell movie, Winter Passing, which was afflicted with the same kind of somnambulant pace and downbeat tone. That movie, however, made the right choice in concentrating on Deschanel's character. Keeping her in the center of the story allowed it to stay afloat. James proves to be less remarkable and some viewers will find themselves studying the set design because it's more stimulating. Sleepwalking fuses elements of the Buddy Movie, the Road Trip, and the Coming of Age story into a package that more often highlights the worst of the genre pictures than the best they can offer. This results in a production with two strong performances and not enough well-written scenes to allow them to truly shine.

Sleepwalking (United States, 2008)

Director: William Maher
Cast: Nick Stahl, AnnaSophia Robb, Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Woody Harrelson, Deborra-Lee Furness
Screenplay: Zac Sanford
Cinematography: Juan Ruiz Anchia
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1