A dysfunctional family gets a therapeutic reshuffling via abandonment, unemployment, abuse and murder in “Sleepwalking,” which traces the fallout when a barely functional uncle assumes responsibility for his 11-year-old niece after her mother skips town. Bleakly striking visuals and a name cast (Nick Stahl, Dennis Hopper, Woody Harrelson and producer Charlize Theron) ratchet up the emotional intensity, but the overly simplistic script by Zac Stanford (“The Chumscrubber”) hits nothing but high notes, making the whole dramatically less than the sum of its parts. Broody meller, skedded for March 14 limited release, may ultimately depend on producer Theron’s star power.
Forced out of her boyfriend’s house when he’s busted for growing marijuana, Joleen (Theron) and her daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) move into the dreary digs of Joleen’s younger brother James (Stahl), ironically nicknamed Speedy for his less-than-quicksilver grasp of events. But emotionally distraught Joleen soon hooks up with a truck driver, leaving an ill-prepared James to “temporarily” care for her wise-beyond-her-years daughter.
Pic geographically divides into three parts. The first, set in a Northern California town, limns James’ ineffectual stabs at child-rearing, ending with him losing his apartment and road construction job, relocating to the basement of a hard-drinking pal (Harrelson) and abandoning Tara to the tender mercies of social services.
But James soon rescues Tara, and the two, happily pretending to be father and daughter, romp and smile through musical montages in pic’s road-movie phase. As they head toward the family farm, the only refuge James knows, bits and pieces of his and Joleen’s traumatic past begin to surface.
Once at the Utah farm, presided over by James’ dour, abusive nightmare of a father (Hopper), pic turns pure American Gothic, replete with wild-eyed horses and lumbering cows. Here, in pic’s cathartic finale, James must reverse his longtime acceptance of a half-life spent “sleepwalking.”
Gifted thesps mostly manage to naturalize the script’s heavy-handed psychology and strained dialogue. Theron proves particularly impressive in her impulsive grab at sexual gratification, while Robb’s subtly portrayed affection for her balances the maternal scales.
First-time helmer and former f/x wrangler William Maher deploys consistently inventive compositions to reflect the characters’ mindsets, but cannot inject the film with any downtime or ambient reality to offset its increasingly wearisome angst. Every secondary character relates directly to the leads in one-note fashion, be it fervently macho, motherly or sadistic; even the road trip yields no casually colorful local characters.
A couple of standout, hyperreal scenes allow the film to travel more imaginative paths. One is a brief, unexplained roadside interlude in which a succession of identical trucks emerge from the twilight mist, while Tara strains toward them as if searching their cabs for her mother.
Another scene — in which Tara is spied on by two boys while she’s stretched out, fully clothed, by a motel pool — recalls the voyeuristic reverie in “American Beauty,” the distinction between reality and fantasy kept deliberately hazy.
Although chilly Saskatchewan locations sub for American locales, veteran lenser Juan Ruiz Anchia opts to convey the icy barrenness of the soul over geographical verisimilitude, as does Paki Smith’s impressively desolate set design.