Toronto Film Review: ‘The Sleepwalkers’

An intense family drama encompassing a sexual awakening and the boiling over of marital tensions.

Paula Hernández
Érica Rivas, Ornella D’elía, Marilu Marini, Daniel Hendler

1 hour 47 minutes

Argentine writer-director Paula Hernández likes to explore what happens when characters from different worlds are thrown together. In her latest, “The Sleepwalkers,” which world-premiered in Toronto’s Platform competition before moving on to San Sebastian, the focus is on a discontented mother and her sullen, newly pubescent teen daughter, as they spend a New Year’s holiday in close quarters with three generations of extended family from the patriarchal side. With the sensual, hothouse environment reminiscent of the work of Hernández’s compatriot, Lucretia Martel (in particular “The Swamp” and “The Holy Girl”), this intense family drama should see extensive festival play.

Although his wife Luisa (the excellent Érica Rivas, bridezilla from “Wild Tales”) and 14-year-old daughter Ana (striking beautiful Ornella D’elía) would prefer something different, the domineering Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski), insists on returning to his upper middle-class family’s rural manse. Surrounded by forests and streams, it’s home to his imperious widowed mother Memé (Marilu Marini), who is also hosting his brother Sergio (Daniel Hendler) and sister Inés (Valeria Lois), along with their respective broods.

When Sergio’s eldest son, the mysterious and flirtatious Alejo (Rafael Federman), arrives unexpectedly, it sets the stage for Ana’s sexual awakening as well as the boiling over of marital tensions as family outsider Luisa finds herself put down and put upon one time too many.

Hernández is particularly good at capturing the fraught relationship between the protective Luisa and the moody adolescent. Ana cruelly rejects her mother’s attentions while staring raptly at her pinging cellphone, and then turns to her father for the permissions that Luisa has denied her. Meanwhile, as the cousins go tramping in the woods and swimming in the stream, Ana uses her phone to take photos of Alejo’s lithe naked body.

The film plays with literal and figurative meanings of sleepwalking. Somnambulism runs through the generations of Ana’s family, afflicting her as well. But it also refers to how the selfish Memé, Emilio and Sergio are willfully oblivious to things that they would rather not know about, while Inés is too busy and worn out from being a single mother with an infant to care.

In contrast, the ever-watchful Luisa, continually finds herself smoothing hurt feelings here, sorting out the baby there, and helping elderly housekeeper Hilda (Gloria Demassi) with the management of the house and the meals. Even though she’s running behind on her work as a translator for the family’s literary publishing business and would really like some time for herself in order to work on her own writing, her maternal instincts are on overdrive, as she senses some threat to Ana.

As the leads, the fierce Rivas totally convinces as the concerned mother, as does the stunning D’elía as the conflicted daughter. The supporting cast are good, too, as they etch the kind of privileged family with whom one might not want to spend too much time.

The intimate, handheld camerawork by Ivan Gierasinchuk compellingly charts the way mother and daughter have their space and their agency infringed upon. As his lens roams over the characters’ sweating bodies, it also makes palpable the humidity in the air and how the weather and alcohol bring out the worst during family arguments.

Popular on Variety

Toronto Film Review: 'The Sleepwalkers'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Platform), Sept. 6, 2019. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival.) Running time: 107 MIN. (Original title: ‘Los Sonámbulos’)

Production: (Argentina-Uruguay) A Tarea Fina production, in co-production with Oriental Films. (Int'l sales: Meikincine Entertainment, Buenos Aires.) Producers: Juan Pablo Miller, Paula Hernández. Executive producer: Juan Pablo Miller. Co-producers: Santiago López, Diego Robino.

Crew: Director, writer: Paula Hernández. Camera (color): Ivan Gierasinchuk. Editor: Rosario Suárez. Music: Pedro Onetto.

With: Érica Rivas, Ornella D’elía, Marilu Marini, Daniel Hendler, Luis Ziembrowski, Valeria Lois, Rafael Federman, Gloria Demassi. (Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

    Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

    No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that [...]

  • Slam

    Film Review: ‘Slam’

    The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, Opening [...]

  • Igo Kantor

    Igo Kantor, Producer and Post-Production Executive, Dies at 89

    Igo Kantor, whose Hollywood career took him from Howard Hughes’ projection room to supervising post-production on “Easy Rider” and producing B-movies like “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Mutant,” died Oct. 15. He was 89. Kantor, who was born in Vienna and raised in Lisbon, met “Dillinger” director Max Nosseck on the ship to New York. [...]

  • The Lion King

    Average Movie Ticket Price Falls 4% in Third Quarter of 2019

    Average ticket prices for the third quarter have dropped 4% to $8.93, down from Q2’s $9.26, the National Association of Theatre Owners announced today. However, compared with the third quarter of 2018, ticket price has risen 1.1% from $8.83. The summer box office is down 2.13% from 2018, though the third quarter box office is [...]

  • Tilda Swinton to Preside Over The

    Tilda Swinton to Preside Over Marrakech Film Festival

    Tilda Swinton, the iconoclastic British actress and producer, is set to preside over the 18th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, succeeding to American director James Gray. Swinton, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton,” has been leading an eclectic acting career. She has collaborated with [...]

  • The King Netflix

    Middleburg Film Festival Brings Hollywood to Virginia

    For the last seven years, audiences have flocked to the Middleburg Film Festival. Running October 17th – 21st, and situated in the wine-country hills of historic Middleburg, Virg., the festival usually highlights some of the year’s buzziest titles, and 2019 is no exception. “We’re a smaller festival with fewer overall screenings than other events, so we [...]

  • Kelly McCormick and David Leitch'Fast &

    'Wheelman' Director to Helm 'Versus' From David Leitch, Kelly McCormick (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Wheelman” director Jeremy Rush is in negotiations to helm the action movie “Versus,” with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch producing. Rush will direct the Universal movie from a script penned by “Three Musketeers” scribe Alex Litvak and “American Assassin” writer Mike Finch. Plot details are being kept under wraps, though it will follow the genre [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content