HOLLYWOOD -- The melodrama of a broken family haunted by its past, a perennial favorite of independent filmmakers, receives a forceful but ultimately flawed workout in "Sleepwalking." Terrific performances and a bleak, riveting look at life on the economic fringes eventually gives way to an overly familiar tale of abuse, denial and catharsis that feels like warmed over Sam Shepard minus the poetry.
Charlize Theron, one of the film's producers, plays Joleen, a woman whose boyfriend " the latest in a long string of losers " is busted for growing pot. The local cops trash their house, forcing the desperate woman and her 11-year-old daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) to move in with Joleen's brother James (Nick Stahl), a socially maladjusted 30-year-old.
Joleen, one of Theron's best roles, is a firecracker, charging around in big boots, tight jeans and a huge chip on her shoulder. Edgy, needy and indignant, she's always on the make, looking for a gravy train and sucking the air out of every room she enters. When she takes off with yet another man, James is left to cope with the precocious Tara.
James, barely taking care of himself, is ill prepared to care for an adolescent who has all the makings to follow in her mother's footsteps. These early scenes feel real and emotionally honest as Theron, Robb and Stahl nicely inhabit their characters for whom any ephemeral stability is always just a paycheck (or less) from slipping away.
The film moves into an illusory middle section where screenwriter Zac Stanford ("The Chumscrubber") and director William Maher allow Tara and James to bond and their relationship to grow. James is initially clumsy in his attempts to befriend his niece but a change in environment offers them both some momentary freedom.
It takes awhile for Tara to warm to him, but there is a gentle poignancy to their awkward rapport. Stahl has a vulnerability that makes James empathetic even as his inaction becomes frustrating to watch, and Robb shows great promise in underplaying Tara's rebelliousness.
This is also, however, the section where the film begins to slide off the rails. Maher takes a more leaden approach in forcing a sense of impending doom upon many of the scenes. The realism that made the first part of the film so compelling gives way to heavy-handed stylization.
Stanford's script likewise takes a turn for the worse, losing its footing as it turns toward a more mythic slice of Americana. Combined with Maher's increasingly gothic mood, the story grows more and more unconvincing. Director of photography Juan Ruiz Anchia provides some stark visuals with the cold, snow-dusted plains of Saskatchewan standing in for the American West.
Along with the strong central performances, the film benefits from a starry supporting cast. Woody Harrelson, as James' jovial stoner co-worker, provides some needed levity but is missed later in the film, and it's nice to know that Dennis Hopper can still be as menacing as ever but his role is underwritten to the point of caricature.
MPAA rating: R for language and a scene of violence. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.