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Sleepwalking (*)

The intended grittiness of Sleepwalking is instantly compromised by opening shots of a dark eyelinered, snakeskin-booted Charlize Theron, whose character’s name is Joleen, freaking out at a police station over her boyfriend’s recent arrest for marijuana possession. Then she gets into a car with her brother James (Nick Stahl), pulls out a cigarette, and begins alternating nicotine puffs with blasts from her asthma inhaler.

By the time Joleen departs from Sleepwalking a mere 20 minutes or so into the film, leaving her tween-aged daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), in James’s incapable hands, she has ingratiated herself; Theron may present us with yet another execrable white-trash stereotype, but the film is about as exciting as oatmeal without her. And it doesn’t get any more nuanced, either. When the down-and-out James subsequently crashes in the squalid basement of his henpecked pal (Woody Harrelson), director William Maher makes sure we notice all the velvet paintings on the walls. And when James whisks Tara away from her awful foster home, they end up in a motel room where the neon sign shines brightly and obtrusively through their window.

Most egregious are Maher and screenwriter Zac Stanford’s attempts to probe the troubled mind of Tara: her visions of her mother through the neon light; a shot of her poking her fingers out of a car’s sunroof (a shot so hackneyed it should be banned from films forever); and a sequence recalling a Van Halen video in which Tara roller skates around a motel pool, cigarette in mouth, while a couple of nerdy boys look on. By the time Dennis Hopper shows up for his stint as James and Joleen’s abusive dad, nothing works anymore. Even his mannered signifying, which puts Theron’s to shame, cannot undo Sleepwalking’s amateurish take on reality.

Sleepwalking is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.).”

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