One of the trickier plot devices for films to earn in their narrative are dream sequences. Dreams are easy ploys to lean on to move a film’s story forward … or undermine it. The filmmakers behind the new indie film Sleepwalk With Me could have been excused for over-using dreams in the film’s plot, as its main character suffers from a peculiar sleep disorder. However, they know the value of restraint. Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia, also the film’s co-director) actually suffers from something called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), which makes him act out his dreams while still asleep. The disease makes him more than a sleepwalker. It is ominously warned in the movie his condition as a hyper somnambulist could lead to the death of his sleeping partner.
Though based on the real-life condition of Birbiglia, the film does not play up his malaise as the film’s main concern. Sleepwalk With Me is as much about a comedian on the rise and the dissolution of his long-term relationship as it as about a man suffering a sleep disorder. Lauren Ambrose plays his supportive but long-suffering girlfriend Abby. Their relationship is sweet and patient. She has a successful business coaching people through vocal exercises for relaxation. Matt notes how the students love her. Meanwhile, he struggles as a bartender at a comedy club where he patiently waits opportunities to fill between comedians who are late for their slots. The two have been dating for eight years since college. Seemingly stuck in a rut, they decide to move in together. As Matt’s sister is about to get married, the pressure mounts. Enter the sleep disorder, which becomes exacerbated when Matt actually starts getting gigs out of state that he drives to by himself.
During these drives Matt often speaks directly to the audience in the theater, charmingly set up at the start of the film with his request that attendees shut off their cellphones. He offers a running commentary of humor and hindsight to a story that could have seemed tragic as a long-lasting and caring relationship gradually unravels. There are tiny details that clearly reveal a human touch of experience and unselfconscious inclination to explore self-deprecating humor. When a female friend asks Abby where Matt’s at, she rolls her eyes and says he’s on the road doing his standup. The standup shows she has seen featured nary a chuckle and only her beaming applause topped off with a giddy but quiet “Yay.” Precious. He also gets paid less than he spends in tolls, gas and hotels.
Little does she know that Matt has found his stride cracking jokes on stage about their sputtering relationship like exploring this little insight: “I decided I’m not going to get married until I’m sure nothing else good could happen in my life.” It’s a subtle humor that represents a lot of the film’s jokes, which are not hilarious but more sad-funny. But if you’re grown up enough beyond the slapstick, superficial and sometimes misanthropic fare of most comedies, this film is a snug fit. There is nothing garish and overly sweet about it either. The wedding of Matt’s younger sister Janet (Cristin Milioti) of course only causes more anxiety for the unmarried couple. When a proposal does come from Matt it arrives as one of the most pathetic engagement agreements ever on screen but still smacks of human compassion. It feels more authentic than a lot of proposals in movies or worse: the TV news. By this point in the movie, it feels as if Matt and Abby are trying to peddle a tandem bicycle with flat tires and bent rims. A wreck is inevitable.
The relationship side of the film, though grim, is one of the film’s most unique characteristics, which is only heightened by Matt’s sleep walking sequences and the menacing warning of death by RBD. These scenes are never exploited beyond serving as witty manifestations of Matt’s anxiety. The skill of these writers, which also includes Ira Glass of the “This American Life” radio show, reveals a profound restraint that many other committee-writing groups should take notes from. It could have been easy to offer a series of escalating jokes of this poor man’s sleep disorder. Instead they appear sparingly, and they are never set up, which allows the viewer a moment of confusion that hints at the disorienting sensation Matt must suffer in these states.
Film offers the perfect medium to re-create dreams, thanks to its inherit quality of editing images together. And the filmmakers take full advantage of the splices. They make the viewer work a bit to understand what may be happening be it dream or real world or the place in between, but they never pander with over-stylization like slow-motion or hazy focus. Though it makes for a quick and easy revelation into dramatic irony, it also heightens Matt’s helpless quality.
Sleepwalk With Me surprises with its heart and humanity while consistently offering insightful laughs into people’s desire to pair off. On the other side of Matt and Abby’s coin are Matt’s patronizing father (James Rebhorn) and air-headed mother (Carol Kane) whose 40-year marriage is best described as firm though not solid or comfortable. Matt and Abby seem hopelessly caught between the weight of the impending marriage and the long-standing marriage. The struggle is a difficult thing to watch, but the film tempers it nicely with Birbigilia’s sense of humor, which feels like a pathetic version of Woody Allen. This movie could have been sad had it not been so humorous. When Matt suffers a sleep walking episode involving a dream of a missile coordinated on his position, the results are inevitably more than symbolic, and his final solution to cope with his problem almost seems like slapstick, but it also makes for an well-earned poignant closing image. Scariest of all, as the end credits prove, this is not a dream but based on a true story.
Sleepwalk With Me is Not Rated and runs 90 minutes. It opens in the South Florida area, this Friday, Sept. 7, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):
Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. There’s even a link to contact theaters that are not showing the film, so you might want to politely ask other theaters to host it.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)