According to Charlize Theron at the Q&A session after the Sundance premiere screening for Sleepwalking, the movie's script really spoke to her, enough to make her want to produce and star in it. I have to wonder what, exactly, the script said to her that made it seem like a real standout project. It's not that this coming-of-age story with strains of poverty and abandonment is bad, necessarily, it's just forgettable. It didn't make me feel anything in particular except sleepy, which is perhaps appropriate, given the title.
The story follows young Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) whose unemployed, unsteady mother Joleen (Theron) suddenly disappears one day, leaving Tara in the care of her meek uncle James (Nick Stahl). Yet James soon finds that he can't care for his 12-year-old niece as well as keep a job and pay the rent, so when Tara insists they set out to find her mother, James eventually agrees. Their journey brings them to James and Joleen's father's ranch, despite the fact that this is the same gruff father (played by Dennis Hopper) who consistently berated and abused his children. Though the movie mostly seems like Tara's story, it's James who learns the most about himself and his own power, something he thought he didn't possess. To find out more of my thoughts on Sleepwalking, read more.
The story itself is fine enough. It's sweet to see the relationship between Tara and James develop into something meaningful, and to see Tara find moments of childish joy despite her difficult home life. There's one scene in particular that is beautifully done: Tara, wearing roller skates, lounges by a motel pool while two pre-pubescent boys stare at her. Enjoying the attention, she makes a big show of lighting a cigarette, then roller skating around the pool before dramatically diving in. The mixture of youthfulness (roller skates), adult behavior (smoking) and newfound sexuality (performing for staring boys) is both truthful and disconcerting.
My main beef with the movie is a filming technique that first-time director Bill Maher constantly employs: the gradual close-up. Maybe Maher thought it would make us care more about the movie if we got closer to things very, very slowly in every scene, but it doesn't work. At some point, it becomes fiercely annoying.
Then again, there's nothing so annoying about the film that we hate it — and there's nothing really interesting about the film that makes us like it. If this movie spoke to me at all, I had no other response besides a silent shrug.
Bottom line: Middle-of-the-road drama by a new director who managed to work with Charlize Theron. It wasn't the worst of this year's Sundance options, but was far from the best.