As a metaphor, sleepwalking — aka moving blindly into disaster — is pretty well-worn, but Paula Hernández ekes something new from it in The Sleepwalkers, her deliciously observed, tightly focused drama about a family falling apart over a New Year’s vacation. Scripted and shot with an open-eyed attention to psychological detail that belies its title, simmering throughout with tension, Hernández’s fifth feature works on a small canvas, refreshingly making no claims to be anything more than a study of the dynamics at work within one particular family. And despite a denouement that some will see as unearned and even unnecessary, it’s all the better for it.
Like Hernández’s previous work, The Sleepwalkers offers little that’s new but does it very well, and will awaken interest primarily on the Spanish-speaking festival circuit.
The rural summertime setting and parallel focus on two generations recall Hernández’s last feature, One Love, but this time the focus is tighter and the tone darker. Translator Luisa (Erika Rivas from Wild Tales), husband Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski from One Love) and their 14-year-old daughter, Ana (Ornella d’Elía), are spending the New Year visiting Emilio’s mother, Meme (Marilu Marini), at her remote country home. The visit follows a sleepwalking session from Ana; sleepwalking, it’s later revealed, runs in the family.
Also there are Emilio’s brother Sergio (Daniel Hendler), his wife Inés (Valeria Lois), who’s anxiously trying to breast-feed their new baby, and sundry other children. This being a family, there are multiple tensions at play — about whether to sell Meme’s house, about Luisa’s job — but the main tensions are inside the characters, with Ana having problems negotiating the journey from adolescence into womanhood and the ever-stressed Luisa unhappy as a wife and insecure as a mother.
On a family vacation, of course, everyone’s expected to be on their best behavior, which always makes an explosion more likely. Unexpected reappearances have been a plot point in Hernández’s films before, and this time the match thrown into the tinderbox comes in the shape of Alejo (Rafael Federman), Ana’s free-wheeling, bohemian cousin, who comes brandishing poetry, an attractive air of rebelliousness, a mop of curls and a winning smile. A born seducer, he’s briefly able to make Luisa smile (quite an achievement in a film with such a low smile ratio) and, almost inevitably, to fascinate the (too) young Ana, who’ll end up, in time-honored fashion, peeking at Alejo from behind a tree as he swims naked in the river.
Following an argument about whether or not Ana should be allowed to camp out overnight near the house, things take a not-quite-unexpected violent turn that all these sleepwalkers, the script suggests, should have seen coming.
As a forensic examination of the fragile dynamics of family life, The Sleepwalkers is very strong. For example, marital breakdown is often indicated by one partner seeking sex and the other refusing, but one potent scene here gives that weary trope an unexpected twist. Luisa’s over-protectiveness of Ana stems from her fear of losing the daughter who gives her life meaning; Meme is the matriarch who always knows best; Emilio genuinely wishes to understand the reasons for Luisa’s troubles, but is hampered by the fact that he’s a guy. All of these and other psychological burdens are explored by Hernández with delicacy, agility and not the slightest self-indulgence.
It’s the kind of material that demands subtle, probing work, and all the leads duly deliver. Rivas offers an on-the-edge performance that makes Luisa’s nervousness hard to watch, while d’Elía’s almost otherworldly clear eyes express worlds of incomprehension and rebellion. (“What’s the use of a family if you can’t do what you want?” Ana asks her mother, neatly summarizing the whole damn problem with families.) The reliably terrific Ziembrowski doesn’t disappoint as the guy trying to keep his own family together: “I want us to see things the same way,” he complains to Luisa, who replies, “And what’s the problem if we see things differently?”
Style-wise, The Sleepwalkers is full of agitated hand-held shots — a little too agitated, sometimes — that pull the viewer right into the heart of the family. DP Ivan Gierasinchuk unshowily evokes that lazy rural vacation feel, keeping things low-key and natural apart from one woozy, intoxicating nighttime sequence in the woods, involving a bonfire, sparklers and too-rare smiles. This comes as a prelude to the final shock, which is very much the ace up the film’s sleeve.
Though morally complex, the shock feels psychologically somewhat unearned, upending all our notions about one of the characters. But it does lead to the film’s strongest scene of all, and its most inevitable — the one where that safety valve finally blows right off.
Production companies: Tarea Fina, Oriental Films
Cast: Érica Rivas, Ornella d’Elía, Marilu Marini, Daniel Hendler, Luis Ziembrowski, Valeria Lois, Rafael Federman
Director, screenwriter: Paula Hernández
Producers: Juan Pablo Miller, Paula Hernández
Director of photography: Ivan Gierasinchuk
Art director: Aili Chen
Costume designer: Monica Toschi
Editor: Rosario Suárez
Composer: Pedro Onetto
Casting director: Maria Laura Berch
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Sales: Meikincine Entertainment