Impressive Sleepwalking Kept Me Up All Night—So Did Charlize!

sarris sleepwalking thero Impressive Sleepwalking Kept Me Up All Night—So Did Charlize!SLEEPWALKING
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Zac Stanford
Directed by William Maher
Starring Charlize Theron, AnnaSophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Dennis Hopper, Woody Harrelson

William Maher’s debut feature, Sleepwalking, from a screenplay by Zac Stanford, stands as a heartening reminder that the future of American cinema may rest with those independent filmmakers working far from the bottom-line executives heading the shattered remnants of the old Hollywood studios, with their pride in their “product.” Sparked by beautiful Charlize Theron’s dual role as co-producer (with J. J. Harris, Beth Kono, J. J. Dix and Rob Marilees) and lead actress, as unwed mother Joleen Reedy, Sleepwalking has rounded up an impressive cast. Besides Ms. Theron, it consists of Nick Stahl as Joleen’s mild-mannered and underachieving brother, James, who takes over the parenting of Joleen’s abandoned 11-year-old daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) after Joleen has run off with the latest in a succession of boyfriends; Dennis Hopper, as the abusive father of the still traumatized Joleen and James; Woody Harrelson as Randall, one of James’s co-worker pals on a construction crew; Deborra-Lee Furness as Danni, an attractive older woman who takes an interest in the introverted James; and Mathew St. Patrick (of Six Feet Under), who’s sensitive and authoritative in the role of a detective who seeks in a tough-love manner to protect Tara and Joleen after a prior and unseen boyfriend has been arrested on a drug charge.

Mr. Stanford has written that current rarity of rarities, a well-constructed narrative that focuses on the daughter-surrogate father relationship that slowly develops between the bitterly disillusioned Tara and the regenerated lifelong loser, James. The film is divided into three acts, the first set in Northern California, the second on the road with James and Tara to his father’s farm in Utah, and the third on the farm itself, where the film’s violently dramatic climax takes place.

At least Northern California and Utah are locations mentioned in the dialogue, though the film was actually shot in and around Regina, Saskatchewan, the western Canadian province north of Montana, to accommodate a low budget and actors’ salaries set at scale. Like the best examples of independent cinema, Sleepwalking was a labor of love for all its participants. Whether today’s thrill-addicted moviegoers will seek out the essential sobriety of the enterprise is another question entirely. It was an unusually cold Canadian winter during the shooting, and the skies were unforgivingly cloudy and dismal, and we all know that moviegoers get depressed if they don’t get enough sunlight in a nonfiction noir. In addition, there is almost no trickery or camera magic to jolly the story along, only very solid dramaturgy. Nor is the conflict between good and evil unusually subtle or complex. Mr. Hopper’s Mr. T. Reedy is clearly a monster, but his cruelty and egocentric bullying are never tainted with any suggestions of lechery, child molestation or incest—just to mention subjects that have been exploited in recent movies and television crime shows. He is instead ultra-Dickensian in his overwhelming desire to dominate in the most humiliating manner. In addition, he flaunts his sick, cynical sense of humor at every opportunity.

But the ability of James and Tara, and even Joleen, to find redemption in their countervailing love for each other projects a heroic quality that makes Sleepwalking one of the most rewarding emotional experiences of the year thus far. To put a point to it, Mr. Maher and Mr. Stanford make us care about the fates of a trio who suffer from low scores in the game of life. As I said of The Bank Job in my column last week, Sleepwalking could not have been made and shown in the Good Old Days of the Production Code. At the final fade-out, a serious crime remains unpunished, but a higher moral code has prevailed just the same. As the French would say, it is to cheer.