Part road tale and part Greekish drama, “Sleepwalking” is a sincere but clunky serving of family pathology that features a familiar indie recipe — tormented adolescence, bad parents, off-kilter travels, amoral catharsis — and, lest things seem too bleak, a viewer-friendly ending. Intentions surely count in underdog human stories like this. But rocky directing, inferior screenwriting, and out-of-sync performances prevent the film from delivering the potent melodrama and the smaller sparks that its material demands.
Costar and co-producer Charlize Theron provides welcome juice in the supporting role of Joleen, an emotionally damaged Northern California woman who, along with her 11-year-old daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), moves in with her unassuming brother, James (Nick Stahl), after her boyfriend gets busted for pot. Before long, Joleen runs off with a trucker, and, striving but slipping, James tries to be a parent to Tara.
After Tara lands in foster care, she and James hit the road and travel fugitive-style to the Utah farm owned by James’ father (Dennis Hopper), an abusive creep who is clearly the source of the misery that seems ingrained in the family marrow. In short, expect an explosive climax and some liberation in its wake.
William Maher, who directed the film, is a former visual-effects specialist, and he creates some artful imagery that sometimes effectively illustrates the characters’ psychological states. In one such scene, Tara encounters some eerily identical trucks that seem to bring her missing mother to mind.
But the spoken material, courtesy of Zac Stanford’s cliché-filled screenplay is subpar, and, all totaled, the movie’s a flat, tepid trip containing nothing new about family dysfunction or personal sputter. Its character interactions are lukewarm. Its story is uninspiring. Its big moments lack resonance. The climax is predictable. The buildup lacks suspense.
Further weakening things is Maher’s inability to establish a common tone among the actors. Theron gets the pitch right, and, as she’s done previously, she creates a credible character who has unprivileged roots and numerous flaws. But we don’t see enough of her. Stahl, who was strong in Larry Clark’s “Bully,” should have been intensified by Maher in order to make his dim, passive protagonist more compelling. Hopper, conversely, severely needs toning down. Woody Harrelson, playing James’ boozing buddy, provides, in thankfully small doses, comic relief.
Undue but welcome sunshine also distinguishes the movie’s modern indie ending. Unlike the rest of the film, it kind of sticks with you.
Sleepwalking (2 stars)
Starring Nick Stahl, Charlize Theron, AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Hopper
Written by Zac Stanford
Directed by William Maher
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes