"Sleepwalking" is a risky title for a movie, especially an indie movie. It evokes the kind of somnambulistic anomie that too often afflicts microbudget fare.
The anomie in "Sleepwalking," which stars Nick Stahl, AnnaSophia Robb, and Charlize Theron is sometimes indistinguishable from anemia. It's a road movie that could use a tighter itinerary, and yet throughout it has lovely, and occasional powerful, moments. You just have to be patient.
Theron, in what amounts to a supporting role, plays Jolene, the errant mother of 12-year-old Tara (Robb), who ends up living for a time with Jolene's brother James (Stahl).
Tara has an independent streak steeled by years of having to fend for herself, and James is in no position, emotionally or financially, to care for her. But he also wants to do the right thing. Like his sister, he's been wounded by life and sees Tara, whom he illegally springs from a foster home and takes on the road, as his chance at redemption. Although he doesn't really know how, he wants to make her life – and his – worth living.
Stahl is a graceful and understated actor, and his easygoing scenes with his co-workers in northern California, before he hits the road with Tara, capture the camaraderie of people thrown together by circumstance. Woody Harrelson is the good-time friend who opens his house – his basement – to James when he's suddenly homeless. Harrelson has an expansive glee here. Another of James's co-workers, played beautifully by Deborra-Lee Furness, tries to get romantically close to him without much success. There is only so much light that James can let in.
When he takes Tara to stay on the farm in Utah where he and his sister grew up, we can see the source of his (and Jolene's) woundedness. Their father, played by Dennis Hopper in a menacing black Stetson, is a horror. Putting James and Tara to work, he unleashes increasingly abusive invective at them. No one is scarier than Hopper in high dudgeon.
This aspect of the narrative, however, is forced. Knowing what he knows about his father, and not seeking a confrontation, why would James return to the ranch after so many years apart? \The answer, of course, is that director William Maher and screenwriter Zac Stanford needed a way to force their story to a satisfying conclusion, however improbable. What started out as an impressionistic road movie becomes all Freudian-biblical.
Despite its deficiencies, and the inadequate screen time allotted to Theron (who's quite good), "Sleepwalking" has a core of feeling. It's about a do-gooder who, lacking all skills for it, does good anyway. His emotional odyssey has real poignancy. Grade: B
Rated R for language and a scene of violence.