One of the things I hate most about wannabe indie movies is the fallacy of the two-day scruff. That's when a male character wakes up every day with exactly two days' growth of beard, even if the movie takes place over the course of two weeks and even if he lacks the means to shave. That's a small thing, I know, but it indicates that the director is grasping at straws trying to come up with a visual look for his story, perhaps a kind of cool, grungy look. The new Sleepwalking, directed by Bill Maher (not the Comedy Central guy) is filled with such things, like a spookily serene shot of a girl swimming underwater with weird sunglasses on, or swirls of powdered snow wisping across a lonely highway. These images may fill out a 2-1/2 minute trailer, but they're out of place in Maher's feature film.

Nick Stahl plays the "sleepwalking" James, a dead-eyed slacker who works a construction job and goes home to a dreary apartment. One day his sister Joleen (Charlize Theron) disappears and his 11 year-old Niece Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) turns up looking for help. Even though he can't drive, James attempts to maintain a schedule, driving her to school in the mornings, before turning up at his job. One day he's late, and the next he calls in sick to look for his sister. On the third day, they oversleep, just as social services turn up. James loses his job and Tara is shipped off to a home. But the first chance she gets, she coaxes her uncle to help her skip town. Their money carries them only as far as James and Joleen's father's farm, which looks permanently chilled and dried and wind-blown (only scraps of paint remain on the outside walls).


Their father, Tara's grandfather (Dennis Hopper), is a major tool, and he immediately puts them to work on the farm, barking at them and slapping them around when he's displeased. Worse, James has lied about his sister's disappearance and claims that Tara is his own daughter, which only angers dad all the more. This all leads up to an all-too-obvious conclusion, and every shot that Maher sets up points inexorably toward it. (There's foreshadowing, and then there's just bad storytelling.) During all this, Maher and his screenwriter Zac Stanford (of The Chumscrubber) attempt to build layers into the relationship between James and Tara. They eat together at a diner, and she coyly suggests that they use code names, things like that. The result of all this is that James gets a speech at the end in which he tells Tara how he's been sleepwalking and that she has woken him up.

I never caught this myself. It seemed like there were other, more violent, factors involved in his "awakening." But the problem with James' sleepwalking is that the film sleepwalks along with him. He's our protagonist, our entry point into the film, and he's too distant and passive to care much about. Tara, on the other hand, is one of those movie kids, cute and wise for her age, but no more realistic than her uncle. Hopper doesn't help much; some of his dialogue very closely echoes one of his most famous lines from Blue Velvet (1986), which caused my mind to wander during a fairly important stretch. And Ms. Theron, who also co-produced the film, barely shows up at all. When she does, she's in another one of her "ugly, poor, small-town trash" roles, which previously landed her an Oscar (Monster), an Oscar nomination (North Country), and an almost-Oscar-nomination (In the Valley of Elah). Is it just me, or does anyone else miss her playing a hottie every once in a while?

Woody Harrelson also turns up as a James's drinking buddy, who offers him a basement corner to crash in for a while when he loses his apartment. Harrelson is supposed to be a kind of comic relief from all the dreariness, but he's even more pathetic than the others, with his sad, sorry little beer parties and TV watching. If only the dreariness had felt palpable, rather than painted on by a production designer, then Sleepwalking might have had a real launching point. Worst of all is that title, which is exactly the kind of title that filmmakers should stay away from if they want to avoid a fairly obvious one-word film review. It's like making a bad movie and calling it Unbearable or Insipid. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.