Is the Sundance name cursed? There once was a time when any film that came out of Robert Redford's famed annual festival was, if not an automatic must-see, then certainly something that seemed to warrant attention purely on the strength of the Sundance name. Unfortunately, the festival has now turned into just another Hollywood pitch meeting, and we've since endured so many lackluster Sundance "discoveries" that I almost want to dismiss any film that now bears its label. Sadly, 'Sleepwalking' will do little to reverse this perception -- it's just another dour, overly-serious drama that seems destined to play the 2am spot on the Sundance Channel.
Nick Stahl stars as James, an aimless twenty-something slacker who develops a close bond with his young niece, Tara (Robb) after the girl's mother Joleen (Charlize Theron) suddenly leaves town. As old wounds from James' own turbulent childhood begin to reopen, he decides to help Tara flee her unhappy existence, to the point of "rescuing" her from foster care and going on the run to a new life. But life has other ideas, and as the impossibility of James' fantasy becomes obvious, he is forced to re-examine his life and, for the first time, discover his true purpose.
'Sleepwalking' is the kind of film actors love to embrace. It's entirely character driven, with many scenes of quiet emotion and copious monologues, and not a car crash or explosion in sight. Certainly, the performances are the film's highlight. As she proved with 'Monster' and 'North Country,' Theron is one of the few glamorous actresses in Hollywood who can dress down and still come off as convincing -- she invests Joleen with a weathered toughness that feels vulnerable yet unaffected. Stahl is likewise intense and honest, while AnnaSophia Robb ('The Invisible,' 'Bridge to Terebithia') again proves herself to be quite the capable little actress in what may be the film's toughest role. She must anchor the entire emotional arc of the story, and does so with subtlety rare for an actress of her age -- she's Dakota Fanning without the creepiness.
Strong performances notwithstanding, 'Sleepwalking' ultimately fails since despite the vividly sketched characterizations and melodramatic grist of the story, the film is essentially shapeless and inert. First-time director William Maher lacks the visual finesse to ground material that teeters on the brink of becoming a Lifetime movie. Bland and unappealing photography, combined with dreadful pacing don't help matters. Scenes lumber along instead of crackling (the gaps between lines of dialogue feel like eons), and confrontations that should pack emotional power instead come off as stunted. Even a late appearance by Dennis Hopper as James and Joleen's long-lost pop, all bug-eyed and in a ten-gallon hat, can't liven things up. 'Sleepwalking' is always a well-meaning film, but it sure is dull.
Perhaps the problems with the film may have been overcome had 'Sleepwalking' found a way to end its story with a genuine sense of completion. Sadly, the formless direction makes the climax feel not so much like a resolution as the simple fade-out to another scene -- although there is meaning to the characters' final actions, the sameness of the film's construction drains of it any potency. One also has to wonder what the film's ultimate message is supposed to be -- that kidnapping is superior to foster care? Such mixed messages only further thwart any intended resonance. Though well-acted and obviously made with passion, somehow, despite all of the good intentions behind 'Sleepwalking,' the film just fails to come together. Sadly, here is a film whose title proves only all too apt.
Starz/Anchor Bay offers 'Sleepwalking' in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1). The film's realistic visual style and lack of pizzazz offer little in the way of high-def thrills, however -- this is simply a solid presentation of rather dull material.
The color palette of 'Sleepwalking' is desaturated to the point of appearing drained. Skintones look like the pale faces of ghosts, while there is not a bright primary color to be found. The image is certainly stable, however, with no chroma noise or smearing present, and the cold, chilly exteriors are well displayed. The source is in fine shape, with nice blacks and well-balanced contrast. The image never has much depth, however, with a somewhat flat look and sharpness that's not top-drawer. Detail is only average, though a few shots do boast a hint of three-dimensionality. The encode is clean, however, so considering the rather dull nature of the source, 'Sleepwalking' looks as good as it probably could.
Two audio options are provided: PCM 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps), both in English. The talky nature of 'Sleepwalking' offers next to no aural excitement.
The film is entirely dialogue-driven. It sounds clean if hardly expansive, and the relative low budget is sometimes obvious in the overdubs and ADR. The minimal piano score is meagerly placed in the mix, so there is little depth to the front soundstage. Surrounds are almost non-existent -- I'm not even sure I heard one discrete effect. Granted, the nature of 'Sleepwalking' doesn't need any big, booming theatrics, but as a high-def presentation, there is nothing to recommend it.
The supplements package is minimal -- this is largely promotional stuff. All video materials are also presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
'Sleepwalking' is that rare indie that feels like an indie -- it's surprising it got a theatrical release at all. As much as I wanted to embrace the film, it feels well-meaning if insignificant, and lacks much in the way of engaging characters or visual acumen. This Blu-ray is a straightforward presentation, with solid video and audio considering the material, and minor supplements. You can give 'Sleepwalking' a rent if you like "small," people-driven movies, though I can't say I found it very memorable.