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Movie Review

Navigating a dark world in 'Sleepwalking'

Charlize Theron stars as the mother of a 12-year-old daughter in 'Sleepwalking.' Charlize Theron stars as the mother of a 12-year-old daughter in "Sleepwalking." (overture films)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 14, 2008

Charlize Theron is well on her way to being the queen mother of a peculiar type of suffering. She seems fully committed to a career of wet, bloodshot eyes, snotty noses, and a mouth that's always pulled down at the corners. "The Yards," "Monster," "North Country," "In the Valley of Elah," or even "The Italian Job": These are unhappy, unsavory, and variously unstable women under siege and striking out against or suffocating inside a man's world.

I don't know whether what Theron is doing constitutes feminism (probably), an on-going commitment to turn herself inside out (for sure), or both. But she's in the process of giving us a gallery of poor, American mothers and girl-friends that, to her credit, feel completely different.

In "Sleepwalking," she's at it again, and a lot of me actually wishes she'd stop. Not because she's bad, although in this film she comes close, but because her compulsion to spelunk through one dark life after another isn't always redeemed by good moviemaking. "Sleepwalking" is the least of her impoverished-victim pictures. It starts as "mama was a rolling stone" story and winds up a runny melodrama.

Theron's semi-blowsy, self-pitying character, Joleen, wears high-heeled snakeskin boots, tight jeans, and great big earrings. She's the kind of woman who needs to hear "I love you" from the man she just picked up at a bar and who carries her 12-year-old, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), from the bed they share out to the living room so she can make drunken love to that man. Never mind that the shabby railroad-side apartment and the affronted bed belong to her meek brother, James (Nick Stahl), who's asleep on a couch.

Maybe she's to be confused with the home-wrecker in Dolly Parton's "Jolene." I preferred what Amy Ryan was up to with a better, similarly messy part in "Gone Baby Gone." A few scenes later, Joleen tells James to be a man then promptly abandons him, Tara, and the film. He loses his construction job (Woody Harrelson has too few scenes as a co-worker), his apartment, and Tara (to child services). So he turns himself and his niece into fugitives. They get in the car and drive east while the movie heads further south.

What follows is a Heartland gothic that returns James to the Nebraska horse ranch of the father who abused him and Joleen. Heartless old dad is played by Dennis Hopper wearing Dennis Weaver's mustache. To reach something approaching a rousing climax, James and Tara stick around long enough for dad to turn into his former monstrous self.

A movie like this needs full-bodied filmmaking and full-bodied characters. The director, William Maher, tries conjuring up a grim industrial America. (The movie was filmed in Canada, and Maher's camera is most comfortable perched among telephone wires.) The screenwriter, Zac Stanford, is pulling all the strings right down to the cheap, lazy ending. The characters in "Sleepwalking" behave like people in movies, not people in life.

The title, as it turns out, is accurate, although Robb gives her part surprising steeliness. In the movie's most interesting scene, Tara suggestively lies poolside at a motel while two little boys check her out. She lights a cigarette and roller-skates toward the diving board in essence, becoming the mother she's so desperate to see again. But the movie seems terrified of true psychological complexity or perversity. It's less a family tragedy than a lousy country dirge.

Sleepwalking

Directed by: William Maher

Written by: Zac Stanford

Starring: Charlize Theron, AnnaSophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Woody Harrelson, and Dennis Hopper

At: Boston Common, Fenway, and suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: R (Some suggestive sexuality, pre-teen smoking, and a scene of family violence)

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