James Reedy (Nick Stahl) is a chronic introvert who spends his days working on a construction crew and his nights staring at the television. When the husband of his equally distraught sister, Joleen (Charlize Theron), is arrested for growing marijuana in his back yard, she and her 12-year-old daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), move into James' apartment. They don't ask permission; they just walk in and take over. Joleen knows James won't make a fuss.
These events take place in the opening minutes of Sleepwalking, and their modesty and psychological detail have the air of true life about them. Watching James stir awkwardly on the couch when Joleen returns home drunk to have sex with a nameless truck driver, I marveled at Stahl's ability to elicit both pity and disgust from his audience with barely a look. And Theron, who has become the Lon Chaney of her generation - a chameleon so deft at disappearing into roles that I hardly recognized her when the movie started - projects all the contradictions of a woman who's used to getting bad breaks from men but still holds out hope for that one golden tryst that will end in love.
Unfortunately, Sleepwalking isn't content being a character study of damaged adult siblings. Instead, Joleen disappears 15 minutes into the film, leaving Tara in her brother's incapable hands. Soon James and Tara are off on a road trip across the snowy plains of upper Middle America, running from social services and their haunted pasts and incrementally giving in to their shared desire for understanding and friendship. It's a cross-generational trip toward redemption through the thick brambles of the past, but director William Maher isn't comfortable enough with the murkiness of human psychology to make a very convincing case for James' transformation from pitiable schnook to master of his destiny. As the title implies, James is a man who treads impassively on the outskirts of life, like a specter, and no three-day drives or spontaneous acts of bravery are enough to save him - or this movie - from a slumberous fate.