Blue-collar America has rarely looked as grease-smeared and horrific as it does in Sleepwalking. A drama about the aftermath of abuse, director Bill Maher's film centers on a deeply dysfunctional family troika. It's no wonder the film opens and concludes in a police station. It's the working-class version of a psychiatrist's couch, the place where ugly family business is splayed out for the world to see.
And it's where the infuriating and tragic Joleen (Charlize Theron, resurrecting her Aileen Wuornos shuffle) is introduced, telegraphing her state of mind with her white go-go boots, miniskirt in the dead of winter and sloppily dyed hair.
Joleen and her daughter, 11-year-old Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) have been displaced from their home in a drug bust and so shack up in the only local residence more depressing than their own. They land at Joleen's sadsack brother James' (Nick Stahl) apartment. It's a Cronenberg set piece, its hallways smeared with ectoplasm and despair. Truckers appear to use the street outside as their thoroughfare, one of them stopping to spend the night with Joleen. "Sordid" hardly does the milieu of these people justice. And just when things appear to stabilize, another enormous setback occurs in a film that takes its cues from Dolores Claiborne and the gritty chick noir of Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car, The Dead Girl).
But the worst is yet to come when Uncle James and Tara take refuge with James' and Joleen's gargoyle paterfamilias (Dennis Hopper), a farmer whose most successful crop is misery. Norman Bates' lonely house on the hill has nothing on this gothic home place plopped on a parcel of mud, stripped of any color save a dying animal's blood.
Sleepwalking suffers from an inconsistency of tone, including some awkward musical interludes that do little to lighten the consistently hopeless mood. Screenwriter Zac Stanford seems anxious to stereotype his lower ranks with jokes about nagging wives and browbeaten husbands, even though his cliché-wracked screenplay also asks us to feel sympathy for their plight.
Viewers may respect Theron and Stahl's desire to show how childhood trauma can create ruined, failed adults. But this marginal film with its wildly mismatched parts is probably not the place to drive that message home.