When a film opens with shots of a straight and anonymous American highway — that most overdetermined of American film locations — as “Sleepwalking” does, one must be braced for a story about emotional journeys. A ribbon of asphalt stretching to the horizon is immediate shorthand for personal growth along the road of life (for, to paraphrase Tom Cochrane, life is a highway); this is as true for Captain America and Billy as it is for Steve Martin and the late John Candy. Though “Sleepwalking” offers little variation on the modern automotive odyssey to maturity (as its protagonists carpool their way to catharsis and fulfillment, sensitive pop songs play in the background and the camera’s lens flares with orange sunsets), its earnestness and acting at least provide the momentum necessary to avoid stalling, whether or not the viewer is content to ride along.
The principal pilgrim in question here is James Reedy, played with nice-guy frailty and gullibility by Nick Stahl, who initially seems to be following a fairly wayward path as a menial laborer in a dismal Northern California town. In his capacity as an unskilled worker, James — derisively nicknamed “Speedy” by his blue-collar colleagues — works on such desperately symbolic jobs as the construction of a playground and unspecific roadside upkeep on (you guessed it) a nearby interstate. He, however, doesn’t drive, preferring to traverse his grey habitat atop a bicycle, and thus the film immediately establishes James as an emotional adolescent.
Stahl’s slightly wizened boyishness — cannily exploited in “The Thin Red Line” and deviously upended in Larry Clark‘s “Bully” — is ideally suited to James, investing him with an air of fragility that never quite tips over into bathos. And when his similarly wayward sister Joleen (played with muted white-trashiness by Charlize Theron), and her twelve year-old daughter, Tara, call upon James for a place to stay, he can hardly refuse the imposition. Soon enough, Joleen skips town with her trucker boyfriend, leaving long-suffering Tara in the charge of the near-destitute (and perennially oversleeping) James. After a fairly hopeless attempt to act as guardian, he rapidly loses job, niece, and apartment. Yet finally, with a vague sense of familial duty, James kidnaps Tara from her foster home, and the two set off on the emotional journey the viewer has been long anticipating. Captured by Juan Ruiz Anchia‘s lovely cinematography, the two leap-frog from motel to motel across the American West, learning something about each other and themselves which the film does not pause to identify.
In its final act, “Sleepwalking” makes a bizarre bid to metamorphose into a work of Western Gothic, as the two travelers make their way to the creaky ranch of James and Joleen’s abusive father, gamely played by Dennis Hopper, looking like nothing so much as the desiccated corpse of Norman Bates’s mother. Of course, as if another item on the road-movie checklist, James’s homecoming forces him to confront his demons and achieve the imperative emotional growth.
Through its title — and a painfully overwrought, title-checking monologue delivered by James near the end of the film — “Sleepwalking” wants to posit its protagonist (and presumably any such person undergoing certain social and economic problems) as a somnambulist who must be awakened from his slumber to become a real (white, heroic) man. James is, as the conventional psychological narrative would have it, a mere child, never given the chance to grow or wake up, and it is only through a series of fairly banal genre conventions that he is able to journey into maturity. Each bend in the road positively screeches with the urgency of impending catharsis, but the film never fully earns its resolution. Instead it studiously adheres to a well-worn roadmap when a little off-roading would have been welcome.