When a movie starts with a shot of the open road, like the one that begins William Mahler's feature debut, Sleepwalking, it usually means that it's going to be an adventure story where one or more characters find themselves by leaving home. But Sleepwalking, despite its own protestations, isn't a movie that goes much of anywhere. Its meandering plot takes a good 45 minutes to get started on the long-promised road trip, which quickly peters out when the characters land in a predictable and unsatisfactory destination. Even one of the movie's stars and co-producers, Charlize Theron, who basically reprises her Aileen Wuornos role here, only manages to stay in the story for the first half-hour.
The movie claims to be set in Northern California, but the blowing snow, decrepit buildings, and industrial locations seems more in tune with its Saskatchewan shooting location. The story is a familiar one for repeat viewers of Dateline NBC: A mother (Theron), who may be a drug addict, is separated from her child after her house is raided because her boyfriend is growing pot. She moves in with her brother (Nick Stahl), who becomes fond, perhaps perversely so, of her 12-year-old daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), and from there a family melodrama begins.
With such a tired script, it's surprising that Mahler was able to land such a stellar cast. Stahl and Robb perform bravely under the grim circumstances, and Dennis Hopper and Woody Harrelson add touches of authenticity to a story that doesn't deserve them.
As a movie, Sleepwalking is a bore, but it's a bit more interesting as a symptom of what has become a recent media obsession: the decay of rural America. For decades, we've had Music Man versions of country town life, and even when there's malfeasance it gets advertised as aberrant behavior. The abusive, impoverished drug and alcohol addicts in this movie would have been in an urban story a decade ago.
Sleepwalking makes some allusions to one of those favorite television tropes--abducted children and sex predators--but this movie feels sympathetic for people who look and act like the predators you usually see talking to Chris Hansen. But the moralistic road story delivered in this movie isn't accompanied by a TV ending. Rather, every time the going gets tough, the characters just get out of the story and you get another shot of blowing snow or truck stops. Perhaps the director thought that by this point in March, movie fans would be sleepwalking, too.