Title: The Sleepwalker
Director: Mona Fastvold
Starring: Gitte Witt, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Stephanie Ellis
Bringing family together can be tricky. Each member of an extended family unit brings some baggage with them, and the internal dynamics can be very different than relationships with the outside world. When family members spend time in one space together, drama is bound to emerge. In The Sleepwalker, from Norwegian debut director Mona Fastvold, four people all related in some way to exactly one other person, spend a night in a large, quiet Massachusetts home, where tensions gradually begin to rise to the surface.
Kaia (Gitte Witt) lives with her boyfriend Andrew (Christopher Abbott) in her late father’s home. The Norwegian-born Kaia is relatively soft-spoken, while her local boyfriend is considerably less even-tempered. Kaia receives a call in the middle of the night from her half-sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis) asking to be picked up at the train station. Christine stays over, and the next morning her fiancé Ira (Brady Corbet) arrives, ready to take her home. There is much more to be revealed, however, about these four individuals, and the ensuing hours spent together include many uncomfortable moments and harsh, honest conversations.
The film’s title refers to Christine’s childhood habit that does not seem to have gone away. Several times during the film, Christine is seen wandering around while Ira or Kaia walks behind her, trying to figure out where she is going and what the reason is for it. Some of those moments have an eerie, uncertain feel to them, and it’s a peculiar device for a film that works well enough as a conventional straight drama. Adding in a slight edge of mystery and horror that doesn’t amount to anything is ineffective, and it doesn’t help to answer any of the film’s questions about these sisters’ complicated past.
These characters are crafted very well, some set to explode even before they have the opportunity to speak with each other and others eternally committed to keeping cool and unable to deal with the outbursts of their partners. Andrew and Christine fall into the former category, both letting their emotions guide their actions to a fault. Andrew is unhappy from the start with the idea of two visitors staying with them for an indeterminate amount of time, and it is later revealed that his record is not spotless, and that his temper can be dangerous. Christine is a loose cannon, bringing up awkward things at dinner and failing to respect any boundaries. Kaia rarely speaks up for herself, and Ira seems determined to play peacekeeper even if it means that he has to keep pushing Andrew, who is not shy about the disdain he feels for him.
The intersection of these four personalities makes for a messy but extremely watchable dynamic. The standout among the cast is Ellis, who plays Christine as an obliviously social and selfish person, and she brings out great responses in the rest of the cast. The film’s setting and its large, seemingly giant house adds a lot to the film’s dialogue-less moments. The sleepwalking element does detract, and, after numerous tempestuous interactions, the film doesn’t come to an entirely confident resolution. Its level of intimacy makes it most accessible and moving, and a more durable plot trajectory and ending might have made it a better movie.
This Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer