Sleepwalking

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Oscar-winner Charlize Theron performs double duty as both actress and producer on "Sleepwalking," which had its premiere at Sundance before opening in March. Actually, her own role is just a supporting turn, but she brings force and integrity to her acting and also to her work behind the camera. Although the story is too grim to attract a large audience, all the performances deserve accolades.

Theron, who seems equally comfortable inhabiting glamorous roles in Hollywood ventures like "The Italian Job" and grungier types in her indie films, plays Joleen Reedy, an irresponsible single mother who has had a lot of bad luck with men. After her latest boyfriend is arrested, she takes her daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), and moves in with her brother, James (Nick Stahl). She soon meets another man and runs off with him, leaving James to look after Tara. James, a good-hearted but simple man, wants to give his niece a home, though he is ill-equipped for the task. Eventually they end up with his own abusive father (Dennis Hopper), the source of all the family's problems.

The script by Zac Stanford ("The Chumscrubber") takes an unblinking look at the travails of working-class people and hopelessly damaged families. While there are moments of humor provided by supporting players like Woody Harrelson (as James' co-worker), most of the movie is pretty bleak. Yet the fine acting keeps us hypnotized. As she showed in "Monster," Theron is perfectly willing to dispense with vanity and offer a hard-edged portrayal of a selfish, reckless woman.

Stahl has often been the best thing in very mediocre movies. In this case, he has one of his stronger roles, and he finds the pathos and decency in a deeply wounded man. Hopper is suitably monstrous as the brutish paterfamilias.

The movie's real find is young Robb, who has shown charm in such movies as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Bridge to Terabithia," and who reaches a whole new level of maturity in "Sleepwalking." Growing up in a messy family situation, Tara has had to develop a wisdom way beyond her years. Robb makes her credibly tough while retaining tinges of heartbreaking vulnerability. This is a breakthrough performance that should do wonders for her career.

First-time director William Maher brings a strong sense of authenticity to the film. Working on a low budget with veteran cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia, Maher makes the most of the desolate Western locations. (The film actually was shot in Saskatchewan, doubling for California and Utah.) The film winds predictably toward its melancholy conclusion, but there is a glimmer of hope for at least a couple of the characters. Even if the movie takes you to some dark places you would rather not visit, at least you will remember the actors who navigate the tortured journey.

SLEEPWALKING
Overture Films
Icon Entertainment International, Denver and Delilah Films,Infinity Features, WJS Prods.
Credits:
Director: William Maher
Screenwriter: Zac Stanford
Producers: Beth Kono, Charlize Theron, J.J. Harris, A.J. Dix, Rob Merilees, William Shively
Executive producers: Michael Stirling, Anthony Rhulen, Charlie Mason, Justin Moore-Lewy
Director of photography: Juan Ruiz-Anchia
Production designer: Paki Smith
Music: Christopher Young
Co-producer: Stephen Onda
Costume designer: Cathy McComb
Editor: Stuart Levy
Cast:
James Reedy: Nick Stahl
Tara: AnnaSophia Robb
Joleen: Charlize Theron
Mr. Reedy: Dennis Hopper
Randall: Woody Harrelson
Danni: Deborra-Lee Furness
Running time -- 101 minutes
MPAA rating R
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