|INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review)|
Fathers and Daughters:
In Their Own Words
by Mariana Cook
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
As a modestly budgeted directorial debut slice-of-life character study, this film has a few good things going for it. Imperfect, it nevertheless develops a sense of reality in a quirky story of two relatives bonding out of need and committment and bringing an unlikely pair into a lot of trouble.
Joleen Reedy (Charlize Theron) and her 11-year old daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) become homeless when Joleen's boyfriend is arrested. Being a woman of resources, physical attributes being the main one, she looks to the road and another man for survival. But before she heads out she turns to younger brother James (Nick Stahl) for temporary shelter for herself and Tara.
The events that follow turn on James' simplicity and amiable nature which means his immediate acceptance of his relatives in need. His modest apartment isn't large, but they'll make do. What he's not prepared for is Joleen's departure with her new boyfriend and what it means to care for a pre-teen girl devastated by her mother's abandonment.
Holding down a job on a road crew, his new dependent urges him to learn how to drive mom's old automatic shift sedan in order to drive her to school. It becomes evident in the way Tara relates to him, leading him, goading him, that she's dealing with a man of limited mental acuity. He doesn't foresee, for example, the danger to his job by driving his niece to school at her usual time. He doesn't properly deal with the foreman's increasing annoyance.
Tara's world is now consumed in finding Joleen. On the premise that she's somewhere in town, she convinces James to take a day off work in order to check all Joleen's possible lodging alternatives. Pulling a blank, however, does nothing to chasten the girl, who might now be coming off as a willful little brat in the way she's controlling her uncle, and the rationales she designs to convince James to do things that lead to his dismissal and eviction.
Randall, (Woody Harrelson) a pal and drinking buddy of James, takes them in and puts them up in his basement until it becomes unbearable and they take off for parts unknown. But, as the end of his little cache of money runs out, they wind up at Joleen's father's farm despite Joleen's previously expressed hatred of the place.
Mr. Reedy (Dennis Hopper) is a stern taskmaster who isn't above insult and cruelty as circumstances and his thirst for absolute domination requires -- fully explaining Joleen's enmity. Quick to take advantage of the pair who, by now, have achieved fugitive status by law enforcement, Reedy's brutality brings the misery he creates and James' patience to a climactic and just end.
The manner in which this plays out suggests real life. The bad guy showing up as a third act episode for the dramatic climax might well be more like the arrangement of episodes in life. But this also demonstrates why screenplays don't take their structure from reality. Those that have too great a fixation on it are generally consigned to the arthouse and, unless they're better than this, to the DVD bins quickly, for a theatrical afterlife.
"Sleepwalking" makes an interesting showcase vehicle for an on-the-rise teenage actress's career development. Robb's predecessor and role model here, clearly, is Dakota Fanning. Fanning's role that most resembles this on her path to stardom was "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" (2005), although her true breakout appearance had to have been "Man on Fire" of the previous year. Robb is doing something here that's a little different, establishing her acting creds in a less commercial context. Her talent will surely come to the attention of directors who haven't yet noticed her as a scary child in "The Reaping" or the wondrous exagerration of "Bridge to Terabithia." I liked that the Tara role doesn't attempt to make an adult or prodigy out of her, though suppressed precocity does show from time to time. Still, the interpretive depth of the performance was framed within the scope of an 11-year old, and a kudo applies to screenwriter Zac Stanford ("The Chumscrubber") for keeping it there, as well.
James' character seems based on a real life figure who is probably developmentally challenged or a high-functioning autistic, though first-time director Bill Maher and Stahl ("Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines") don't go out of their way to explain or emphasize it. It isn't "Rain Man," but the quality of some form of limited retardation in the character makes what happens here possible. James' trustfulness and the child-like bond he feels from the unexpected responsibility that's fallen into his lap is not the response of your average citizen who would protect his job before anything. James doesn't "peg" people right. The film's title derives from dialogue, where he expresses the feeling that his life has been like "sleepwalking" before his adventure with Tara began.
Hopper's inhuman bully is vital to the story for its sole element of high drama and, while the actor's inherent dislikeability works for the context, his acting-by-the-numbers makes it awkward and synthetic.
There are more troubling off-notes. The central relationship between retarded uncle and demanding niece is off-putting, creating an unwillingness to go along with the events that flow from it. What fascination the unusual relationship develops slowly creeps toward disregard as we realize the trip isn't taking us very far and the engine of sympathy is running on vapor. Moreover, Theron as this callous, messed-up mother doesn't ring true, probably because of the inherent integrity of her persona. One might well wonder what Amy Ryan ("Gone, Baby, Gone") might have made of it, or someone like Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Margot at the Wedding"). And, finally, on my list of dissonances are the inserted scenes to suggest the harm that might come to a young and preety blond girl, and the possible courses the film might take: scenes like the one of her roaming alone at night among massive Peterbilt leviathans at a truck stop and lounging at a motel swimming pool, being leered at by two potential boy delinquents. Why she dives in fully clothed is left to the imagination. It may be art but isolated scenes like these come off as sensationalist.
As a stab at social realism and an early look at a future Ellen Page-like actress ascendancy, it's a respectable arthouse entry. As for who enters there, one shouldn't expect top ten. But, you never know.
~~ Jules Brenner