Director William Maher’s drama is not so much a story about Anna Sophia Robb’s character nor is it particularly about Charlize Theron, but a story about Nick Stahl’s protagonist James. Beaten down by life to the point where he is perpetually inept and in a funk, James is a man who gets through life as much as possible by soaking in the bile life hands him with a casual shrug and enduring about as much from the people in his life as possible. He is so absolutely immune to personal pain and stress he is constantly mistaken as mentally disabled. He sadly has to deal with Joleen and Tara, his sister and niece, both of whom are consistently in the pits of life. Joleen is a reckless neglectful mom who relies on James too much to get her out of trouble while Tara is her petulant daughter forced to deal with her mom’s indiscretions. But when Joleen leaves one night, she never comes home and now James and Tara are left all alone.
While “Sleepwalking” is primarily a melodrama first and foremost and one that’s much too soapy for drama addicts to take in at times, the show here is the performances. Particularly from Nick Stahl. As this man who has been broken in two, he is capable of taking in so much pain he’s numb to every stressor that occurs around him. He can barely find the time to discipline his angry niece when she talks down to him and lectures him about the difference between driving automatic and gear shift in a truck. Stahl is a consistently excellent actor and here he plays a sharp and complex character who could very well lead his own movie were it not for Robb and Theron headlining. His back story becomes all the more harrowing with the look at his life on a farm when last resorts bring them to the house of James and Joleen’s father who, as played by the late Dennis Hopper, is as cruel a human being as you can imagine.
Yes, “Sleepwalking” is not the masterpiece I hoped for, but if you watch for Nick Stahl’s subtle tortured portrayal and Robb’s strong play on this girl looking for a bright spot in a horrible life, you may come out with at least a smile. Unfortunately William Maher’s film is based on the pretense that if a movie is about as dark and bleak as possible it automatically constitutes an indie masterpiece. And that’s far from the truth especially with “Sleepwalking.” For what it claims to be, there’s not much life to the drama and turmoil that ensues with these characters. Especially considering they could be compelling and rich individuals who can suck in an audience. Instead Charlize Theron hits the high notes of melodrama as much as possible with her character’s supporting performance, and Anna Sophia Robb really doesn’t provide a dimension beyond Tara’s youthful protagonist. Is she angry with life, or just a spoiled brat?
Meanwhile once the film finally enters in to the second half it completely opts for a direction many audiences will not expect, and Dennis Hopper’s introduction, while welcomed, is comical at best. Hopper was amazing with his talent for portraying twisted characters, but the introduction of the matriarch Mr. Reedy is at best forced conflict for the sake of conflict. Zac Stanford relies on all forms of pressure points to gauge emotions from his audience, and when all else fails he takes us in to a farm where we meet Hopper who portrays an awful and abusive man. While this perhaps was intended to gain insight as to why Joleen is such a love starved wreck, and why James is such a weak shell of a man, the segments with Hopper border on manipulation and pat plot device implementation.
When in doubt, enlist an abusive character. Not much is made of Hopper’s character by the time the film closes, and by then the audience may be too anxious to move on to another movie to care where the situation ended up. William Maher’s melodrama is much too grim and bleak for even the most cynical viewer to enjoy with a constant reliance on hackneyed plot devices and the cheesy fallback of an abusive villain played by the late great Dennis Hopper. However, if you want to see the stellar Nick Stahl portray a character deserving of his own character study and salvage this exercise in human misery, “Sleepwalking” is worth a watch.