(Overture) Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Anna-Sophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Woody Harrelson, Callum Keith Rennie, Deborra-Lee Furness, Matthew St. Patrick. Directed by Bill Maher
We are all, in a sense, damaged goods. None of us makes it through our lives unscathed by trauma and tragedy alike. Some of us emerge stronger for it, but far more of us bear deep, open wounds hidden away by the veneer of civility. Press too hard on the scab and our true nature emerges, oozing from the sore like pus.
Jolene (Theron) has horrible taste in men. When her boyfriend is arrested, she is forced out of her apartment along with Tara (Robb), her 11-year-old daughter. With nowhere left to turn, she shows up at the door of her brother James (Stahl), a soft-spoken, weak-willed young man who is an endless doormat for his family and his friends, like his stoner co-worker Randall (Harrelson).
It doesn’t take Jolene long to find another loser to hitch her wagon to, and after a night of passion she impulsively runs away with her new beau, leaving James holding the bag. Completely ill-equipped to handle the needs of a young girl, he soon loses his job trying to be a ketchup father (coz he’s playing catch-up in the role…get it?) and is evicted himself. He goes to lick his wounds over at Randall’s, while Tara is put into the foster care system.
Predictably, Tara is put in one of the least hospitable foster homes on record and is soon begging for James to take her away, anywhere but there. In true desperation, he runs away with his niece, the two of them taking assumed names. They eventually make their way to the ranch of James and Jolene’s father (Hopper), a rattlesnake of a man who’s mental and physical abuse tormented his two progeny into lives of abject inability to deal with life. While James has defense mechanisms that help him deal with the old man’s cruelty, the spirited Tara is slowly being broken by dear old Dad. James must soon figure out a way to get away from their place of temporary refuge before Tara winds up crushed the way he and Jolene were.
This is not the most upbeat movie you’ll ever run into. Not only are the main characters constantly doing the wrong thing, they are dealt incredibly bad hands to begin with. They are poster children for the aphorism “if it wasn’t for bad luck they’d have no luck a’tall.” Director Maher compliments the grim mood with bleak landscapes; harsh winters, dry, dusty and lacking in color. Only Tara has any color to her, which is more or less a metaphor as far as I can tell.
Robb, so good in Bridge to Terabithia, proves herself a capable actress who could well wind up in the same stratum as Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin. Stahl, who has mostly played supporting roles throughout his career, is put in a position to carry this movie and for the most part, he handles it well, given that his character is a bit of a milksop as written.
What really drew me into the movie was the relationship between Tara and James. It defines the movie to a certain extent and is the best thing in it, the only aspect that generates any hope that their miserable lives will improve at all. Robb and Stahl make it believable and moving, two wounded creatures gravitating towards each other at first out of necessity and eventually out of true affection. The evolution of their relationship is the crux of Sleepwalking.
While the ending is a bit of Hollywood hokum, the truth is that there are lives that don’t get happy endings. Some people struggle and labor their entire lives only to get nowhere. Sometimes they are responsible for their own plight, other times it is just godawful luck. Observing a slice of their lives doesn’t necessarily make us feel superior; rather it makes us feel fortunate that we have what we do and reminds us that everything good in life comes with a price tag.
WHY RENT THIS: Robb and Stahl make a believable pair; their relationship is at the crux of the movie and provides all the rooting interest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly bleak, and in a lot of ways, most of these characters are hard to relate to because of their many and varied faults.
FAMILY VALUES: Rough language, a bit of sexuality and a scene where a child is emotionally and physically abused make this not suitable for kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original working title for the movie was “Ferris Wheel.”
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Grace Is Gone