“Sleepwalking” offers the most conspicuous representation of adulthood depression I’ve seen in quite a while. The film is a dissection of damaged goods, but in place of a steady hand guiding matters to believable and sympathetic ends, director Bill Maher (not that one) takes the picture to unwanted extremes of behavior and guilt. This is a strange, messily arranged picture that aches to be insightful.
Kicked out of her home, Joleen (Charlize Theron) and her 12-year-old daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) head over to the dilapidated apartment of her brother, James (Nick Stahl), to regroup. When life becomes too much for Joleen, she takes off, leaving James and Tara to fend for themselves, handing the quiet young man a pre-teen he can’t properly care for. Soon losing his job, apartment, and Tara to the foster care system, James is left with nothing. Feeling the pinch, James kidnaps Tara at her request and the two hit the road under assumed names looking for shelter and hopefully Joleen.
“Sleepwalking” is about dreary lives, and we know this because the characters stumble around the picture drowsy and poorly groomed, perhaps making the title of the movie a bit too literal for comfort. Maher and screenwriter Zac Stanford (“The Chumscrubber”) have a profusion of ideas and moods they wish to explore in the material, but they lack focus, especially in the thematic realm, where “Sleepwalking” can’t quite find its center.
The first hour, setting up the characters and starting them off on their journey of self-discovery, is reasonably compelling. While obviously costumed and shot in overtly dreary accommodations, Maher still achieves a mournful tone, zombifying his cast appropriately and using the wintry Canadian locations to hypnotic effect. The actors aren’t breaking any performance ground here, but they acquit themselves to the material satisfactorily and create a believable sense of ingrained misery with little optimism for the future.
It’s in the second half that “Sleepwalking” lost me in a big way. The introduction of Dennis Hopper as Joleen and James’s abusive father is a thorny detail that isn’t woven into the fabric of the story with enough passion. A subplot that features James falling into old patterns of abuse while watching Tara follow the same fate is far too easily read, especially in the manner Hopper stomps around like Godzilla with a Dennis Weaver moustache, breathing fire and going directly against the fragile nature of the piece. Hopper’s role is critical to the tension of the film, but his offerings come late in the game and fail to illuminate the emptiness inside James in a satisfying manner.
If “Sleepwalking” is truly about exorcizing demons, the film has a lousy way of arriving to that point. Perhaps the navel-gazing nature of the script clouded Maher’s vision; the last act of the film is a puzzling mishmash of overdirection and melodrama. However, there’s a kernel of open-wound humanity buried deep within that comes out every so often and reminds that “Sleepwalking” isn’t a terrible film. Much like the characters, the movie wanders around searching for meaning, and when it finally finds something to say, it’s much too late to make a difference.