Sleepwalking: A Jaunt Down Mangled Main Street

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Overture Films / Everett

AnnaSophia Robb offers a stunning performance in Sleepwalking.

When, exactly, did Our Town become Their Town?

By which I mean, at what point in movie history did the small American city cease to be represented as a cozy, leafy place preoccupied by ice cream socials, sweetly goofy teenage romances and Ford roadsters decorated with funny ("Oh you kid") slogans? When did the bleakness and perpetually bad weather set in? When did it become the poisonous appendix of our body politic, the place where the dopers and drinkers, the dismal and the dysfunctional, collect to dream of the escapes they never quite manage?

The answers to those questions are elusive. The literarily inclined might date the beginnings of the change all the way back to Sinclair Lewis and Main Street. The aging moviegoer might cite King's Row, wherein cheerful Ronald Reagan lost his legs to a sadistic doctor. Me, I'd probably pick something like Boys Don't Cry, for which Hillary Swank won her first Oscar playing out a transgender tragedy on the flat and (as the camera saw them) fallow plains of Nebraska.

Movies made in these settings are, relatively speaking, cheap to make (western Canada is a perfect stand-in for the western U.S.) require smallish casts and in the dreariness of their first shots signal seriousness of intent. I don't care if we're talking No Country for Old Men or the more recent, low-budget hopelessness of Snow Angels — the seasoned moviegoer settles in for a long trek in a pickup truck, stopping only for depressed meals in dubious diners, trailer park sleepovers and a touch of concluding violence.

So it is with Sleepwalking, stolidly directed by William Maher from a script by Zac Standford and most significantly co-produced by Charlize Theron (who won her Academy Award for Monster, which is solidly in the tradition of American hopelessness). In the new film she plays a boozing, pot-smoking layabout named Joleen, whose redeeming virtue is a fierce love for her daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb). This, however, does not prevent her from deserting the child to run off with some anonymous dude. She dumps Tara on her brother, James (Nick Stahl), who promptly loses his job and his apartment, and decides to return to his father and the tumbledown family farm from which he and his sister long ago fled.

We know this is a bad idea the minute we meet its proprietor, played by Dennis Hopper. He's not quite in full Blue Velvet mode, but his sadism is understated and very effective as he works James and Tara almost to death, until, at last, the wormlike James turns on him when his cruelty to the girl turns murderous.

At this point the fastidious viewer may well wonder why he signed on for this ride through the heartless heartland with these dismally downtrodden human beings. To which this answer immediately occurs; It's because of AnnaSophia Robb's performance. When we meet her she's a closed-off and cynical girl. In her relatively short life she already witnessed a lifetime of human fecklessness, and we sense that she is on the edge of following her mother's downward path. Yet, stubbornly, she continues to love her. Better still, she reluctantly begins to bond with her uncle. He may have neither the life-skills nor the ambition to lift himself off the road to nowhere, but he is a good-natured man with the ability to make his niece laugh, to forget, for a moment, her hard-luck life. And somehow her spunk emboldens him to free himself from the psychopathic toils of his father, the source of his and Joleen's lifelong misery (as if you hadn't guessed). There is a wonderful range to Robb's work; she's testy and vulnerable, patient and impatient, hopeful and despairing always fiercely committed to exploring the ambiguities of her still-forming character. This is extraordinarily mature acting from someone this young and she wins our sympathy without once begging for it.

Whether the rewards she offers us are sufficient to offset the film's cliches of setting and the predictabilities of its emotional landscape are an open question. But I don't think you'll see a more fascinating and nuanced performance at the movies this year.