The almost perversely gloomy miserablist drama Sleepwalkers belongs to a strange subset of American independent film about pathetic characters who begin a film with next to nothing, then proceed to lose even that. It's the kind of punishing arthouse fodder where a pair of kicked-around misfits seeking shelter from a cruel world willingly subject themselves to the cartoonish cruelty of a poisonous patriarch, played by Dennis Hopper as the even more transcendently evil identical twin of the arch-villain he played in Blue Velvet. It's just the latest stop in Charlize Theron's ongoing campaign to make the world forget that she is a beautiful woman. Beyond her well-documented ability to look like a bedraggled small-town nobody, it's easy to see what attracted Theron to this role: Every scene in this grungy acting Olympics constitutes a big scene, an actor-friendly opportunity to bare the most painful recesses of the human soul.
Theron stars here as a desperate, pot-dealing single mother who leaves her bratty 12-year-old daughter (Annasophia Robb) with good-hearted brother Nick Stahl following her latest brush with the law. After the child welfare folks take Robb away, Stahl scoops her up and takes her on a voyage of the damned to a family farm where the ghosts of childhood traumas linger.
Stahl plays Sleepwalking's directionless protagonist like an abused dog. His soulful sad sack is all instinctive loyalty and blind devotion with little in the way of common sense or street smarts. Once Stahl and Robb show up at Hopper's farm for a harrowing endgame, seeking comfort and security but receiving only cruelty and abuse, Sleepwalkers becomes the story of a battered mutt mustering up the courage to turn on its master. Working from a script from The Chumscrubber scribe Aaron Stanford, director William Maher (no, not that Bill Maher) favors an endlessly overcast dishwater-gray palette that puts a gloomy exclamation point on all the human suffering. Well-intentioned to a fault, Sleepwalking blurs the line between dramatizing free-floating misery and spreading it.