Thursday, March 20, 2008

Asleep at the wheel

It’s long been fashionable amongst critics to disparage American indie films that locate themselves in smaller, economically marginalized communities. Such settings are often regarded as a cynical trope, as though the mere vision of a trailer, run-down duplex or wood-paneled diner were enough to gain a film entry into Sundance. This attitude toward the use of a milieu that, let’s face it, a hell of a lot of people actually live in, is irksome. A lousy movie is a lousy movie, whether set in Beverly Hills or in the shantytowns of hillbillies, and I for one welcome any movie that expands our imaginative landscape to include all manner of geography and class. Yet in the case of Sleepwalking, we’re confronted with a movie that wears its small town despair like an impenetrable suit of armour, which is to say it’s an airless, self-consciously slumming affair, and is admittedly just the sort of thing that should send those antipathetic to the blue collar blues into fits of vehement dismissal.

Sleepwalking was written by Zac Stanford (Chumscrubber) and marks the directorial debut of Bill Maher. It opens with single mom Joleen (co-producer Charlize Theron, most recently embodying dinge in North Country and Monster) getting busted for running a grow-op out of her house in some bitterly cold corner of Northern California. With her place getting gutted by the fuzz, Joleen barges her way into the hovel of her pushover brother James (Nick Stahl) with her rightfully pissed-off preteen daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) in tow. After drowning her sorrows and scoring some action from an anonymous good ol’ boy (a bit-part sadly played by the far too talented Callum Keith Rennie), Joleen abandons James and Tara with no forwarding address.

Tara is soon whisked away from James’ dump to an even more depressing dump of a Foster Home, and just in time too: James is not only fired but evicted soon after, forced to sleep on the floor in a buddy’s basement. If things weren’t bad enough, James, with barely enough cash to fill the tank, then deduces that his only recourse is to abduct Tara and hit the road. Stahl has no problem imbuing James with a convincing balance of dopey sweetness and poor judgment, but his implausibly stupid choices as the film goes along reek of dramaturgical convenience. By the time he gets to visiting his unsurprisingly evil old pa (Dennis Hopper, performing the perverse shtick he can do in his sleep), who unsurprisingly abuses both James and Tara, the story becomes perfectly exasperating.

We often mock movies in which, for example, some struggling university student transplanted from a modest Midwest farming community lives in some wildly expansive Manhattan loft. We roll our eyes at how movies seem so out of touch with the relationship between income and real estate, as though the affluence of Hollywood bigwigs renders them oblivious to the standards by which the rest of us live. But the reverse problem can be just as risible. The places where people live in Sleepwalking feel, not overly cramped (the crew does have to fit somewhere), but overly emphatic in their white trash squalor. James’ dark, dank apartment, with its unfinished walls, might turn off a discerning crackhead, but it fits all too well into Sleepwalking’s low-rent drudgery schematics, which are so demanding that they don’t even allow James to pay his rent, even though he performs not un-lucrative roadwork and seems to harbour no vices whatsoever that might exhaust his funds.

The fact that Sleepwalking is so relentlessly bleak is a problem mainly because it finally gets in the way of storytelling. Despite the efforts of a largely laudable cast (young Robb included), the movie just never seems to move, so bogged down in faux realism that it can’t work up the energy to convey even a fleeting sense of genuine joy in the escape plan James and Tara enact. (The incongruous pool sequence most certainly doesn’t count.) With no plausibly urgency to the characters’ desperation, no plausible hope to contrast their despair, Sleepwalking finally feels as shapeless and unengaged as its title.

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