The Sleepwalker: Sundance Review

A tentative feint toward genre territory can’t conceal the slightness of this heightened drama.

Christopher Abbott and Brady Corbet co-star in a U.S.-set film from Norwegian writer-director Mona Fastvold.

The Sleepwalker proves all too apt a title for Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, an oblique, haltingly paced drama concerning family secrets and wounded psyches. Euro fests and markets may warm to the film’s emotionally distant tone, but attracting American audiences could turn out to be a tough sell. On an isolated, wooded Massachusetts estate, Kaia (Gitte Witt) and her boyfriend Andrew (Christopher Abbott) are renovating the estate left behind by her late father, an architect and by all accounts a rather stern taskmaster who hired Andrew as an assistant prior to his death. Passionate but not especially intimate, the two have a shared past extending back to the local high school, but are only recently coupled.

A late-night call forces Kaia from bed to drive to the nearest town and collect her younger sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis), who’s arrived unannounced. All drama to Kaia’s seeming placidity, Christine breathlessly relates that she’s pregnant by her fiance, whom she’s left behind in Boston while pulling one of her frequent disappearing acts. Kaia and Andrew try to adjust to her unfocused energy, but Kaia is quickly drawn back into her sister’s frequent drama. The next day Christine’s well-off fiance Ira (Brady Corbet) arrives to collect her, but she’s not yet prepared to leave her childhood home, asking Kaia to let them stay the night, to which she agrees. One overnight turns into another, with the houseguests quickly disrupting Kaia and Andrew’s routine of refurbishing and rewiring the house.

Boozy late night conversation revisiting Andrew’s violent past and prison stint for battering his ex-girlfriend, as well as Christine’s libidinous high school reputation, put everyone on edge. Kaia continues to nurse resentment over wounds she suffered following a fire on the property that she attributes to Christine’s erratic behavior. The elevated tension is further aggravated by Ira’s open attempts to flirt with Kaia and Christine’s reversion to nightly sleepwalking, exactly like when she was younger. Her somnambulant habits are quickly suspected when she disappears in the middle of the night, with the ensuing search exposing further, potentially tragic, rifts among the remaining trio. As the central character anchoring the small ensemble cast, Norwegian actress Gitte Witt more than holds her own with the native English speakers, empathetically pitching her performance somewhere between compassion and bewilderment with her sister’s behavior.

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Corbet’s character could have done with more development and his attempts to shade in the blanks are only moderately successful. Ellis gives the only truly intriguing performance, exteriorizing Christine’s agitated mental state with barely restrained manic energy, which becomes the counterpoint to Abbott’s minimally veiled menace. Fastvold and co-writer Corbet subscribe to the less-is-more branch of screenwriting, assuming that audiences will be drawn in by the air of mystery surrounding the sisters, when in fact the lack of narrative detail is consistently off-putting.

None of the characters is particularly likable or admirable, leaving little opportunity for sympathy or curiosity to penetrate the constantly heightened air of psychodrama. As director, Fastvold displays better command of the material, alternately bathing the rooms and hallways of the labyrinthine home in wan daylight or evening shadows – even the exteriors have an oppressive, underexposed look to them. While the film’s style isn’t particularly expressive, the frequently insistent sound design and ominous score by Sondre Lerche and Kato Adland add to the increasing tension, until the absence of a worthwhile payoff deflates the entire proceedings.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, US Dramatic Competition

Production company: 4 1⁄2 Film

Cast: Gitte Witt, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Stephanie Ellis

Director: Mona Fastvold

Screenwriters: Mona Fastvold, Brady Corbet

Producers: Karin Julsrud, Turid Oversveen

Executive Producers: Hakon Overas, Pal Sletaune, Marius Holst, Petter Stordalen, Karin Julsrud, Turid Oversveen

Director of photography: Zachary Galler

Production designer: Lucio Seixas

Costume designer: Keri Lee Doris

Music: Sondre Lerche, Kato Adland

Editors: John Endre Mork, Michael Mazzotta

Sales: LevelK No rating, 92 minutes