‘Sleepwalking': A Sundance Review

Every few years, a film comes along containing a performance far better than the movie as a whole; some characters just deserve to have more interesting things happen to them. I’m thinking of Forrest Whitaker in “Ghost Dog,” Paul Giamatti in “Lady in the Water,” or Giovanni Ribisi in, well, anything.

I have now seen the Superbowl of such movies, and it is called “Sleepwalking.”

The Sundance film’s title sums up the efforts of its screenwriter quite well. It’s your standard mopey family stuff, striving to be “Ordinary People” but feeling like you’re watching a white trash re-telling of “Winter Passing,” minus the Will Ferrell comic relief.

I call it the Superbowl of good performance/bad movie movies, because all four leads turn in solid (if not career-highlight) work. Star/producer Charlize Theron is once again in dirtied-up mode as a slutty, irresponsible single mother. Nick Stahl, as her unmotivated brother James, gives what might be the best performance of his young career. Dennis Hopper, channeling Dwight Yoakam in “Sling Blade,” balances charm and rage to create the sort of character calling out for one of two things: A hard blow to the head, or a hug.

Then there’s 14-year-old AnnaSophia Robb, a talented young actress who has spent the past few years picking up Dakota Fanning table-scrap roles in stuff like “The Reaping” and “Bridge to Terabithia.” Cast as Theron’s daughter (for once, Hollywood found a believable-looking family!), the film very much focuses on her growth into adulthood. This is the kind of movie that most likely won’t be seen by many, but those who do will leave the theater thinking it’s high time Dakota spends some time in AnnaSophia’s shadow.

You definitely get the “star is born” vibe from one fun scene in particular, after Theron’s character has skipped town and Stahl takes Robb on a desperate roadtrip. Stuck at a cheap motel, remembering the only strength of her flaky mom, Robb’s Tara takes a self-assured stroll around the swimming pool, sexily smoking a cigarette and wearing roller skates. Naturally, the two young boys sitting nearby can’t take their eyes off the young teen.

Much like Natalie Portman in “Beautiful Girls,” Christina Ricci in “The Opposite of Sex” or Sue Lyon as “Lolita,” Robb walks that fine line of exploring her sexual identity. After all the truckers she’s watched her Mom bring home in the middle of the night, it rings sadly true.

Without Theron’s clout, “Sleepwalking” likely never would have been made. And although much of the world might not have blinked an eye either way, this rambling Sundance flick does excel at letting its stars shine.

See our complete coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival — including breaking news, celebrity interviews, red carpet photos, movie clips and tons more.