Sleepwalking is film fest cinema at its best: it's indie, star-powered, celebrity-backed and bleak.
The snow-covered landscape of Saskatchewan subs for the oppressing environment of Northern California and, later, Utah. This setting is home to a young man lost in a state of numbness.
Joleen (Charlize Theron) is a restless single mom worried her unstable lifestyle is damaging her 11-year-old daughter's (AnnaSophia Robb) outlook on life. With no place to live after a drug raid, Joleen calls upon her younger brother for help. James (Nick Stahl) is more than willing to offer his modest apartment, but the living arrangements prove trying on everyone. In lieu of a solution, Joleen takes off with her new beau.
In her absence, James is deemed an unfit guardian and Tara is put into foster care. As their lives spiral out of their control, the pitiful pair joins forces in an attempt to take power back. But as the road grows weary and their money runs out, James takes Tara to the only other place he knows – his father's (Dennis Hopper) farm. As Tara lives through the horror of her mother's childhood, James is forced to confront the source of his cowardly existence.
The actors never give the impression of a manufactured moment: everything feels real and as it could be. Joleen and Tara have a strained relationship but each ultimately wants to please the other; meanwhile, Joleen uses James because he allows it, although she feels guilty afterwards. In the end, James tries to be the father Tara never had without angering his own. These are not cookie-cutter characters and their stories are not delivered wrapped in a pretty little bow. Unfortunately, they are not conveyed very strikingly either.
Theron is still recognizable but she once again plays down her beauty to take on the role of a flawed woman. While her screen time is limited, she also contributed behind the camera as a producer. Stahl is a talented dramatic actor and this film allows him to demonstrate his ability; at the same time, even at her age, Robb grasps the complex feelings her character is experiencing and conveys them accordingly.
But no matter how nice everyone says he is, onscreen Hopper can scare the bejesus out of anybody.
Nonetheless, more than competent acting is usually part of the indie package; if only the same were true for directing. Bill Maher (not the politically outspoken one) fails to bring anything new to this story type, sticking to the traditionally dreary style – except for a vibrant dreamlike scene of a poolside Tara.
Ultimately, it is the acting that stands out in this film – but that does not change with screen size.