After several film credits for visual effects, William Maher has tried his hand at directing, and for the first hour or so of “Sleepwalking,” it looked as if he had struck gold. The story, up to that point, had been compelling and thorough, but the pace then slowed to a walk and it abruptly stalled, as if everyone involved just ran out of ideas all at once. Too bad, because some excellent acting and storytelling was squandered along the way.

Charlize Theron turned in an excellent performance as a cheap-talkin’ welfare mom. She steals every scene she appears in and reminds the audience of her excellent work in “Monster” from a few years ago. She truly is a gifted performer. Her role as Jolene, mother of “Tara,” a troubled 11-year-old, is the key role in the film, even if it is brief and underwritten. The role supplies the tension of the story whether Theron is on screen or whether her role is just being used as a reference point.

A few other roles are noteworthy as well. Nick Stahl, who has been a familiar face in several productions since appearing in 1993 with Mel Gibson in “Man without a Face,” plays James, Jolene’s hapless, ne’er-do-well brother. James “rescues” Tara after Jolene abandons her and slips out of town.

James bonds with the pre-teen, offering some loose-fitting structure to her chaotic adolescence, but sometimes it is difficult to tell who is offering whom the proper amount of guidance as they stumble through their brief journey together.

AnnaSophia Robb does a wonderful job with her role as the mixed-up kid of the welfare mom, in and out of school but somewhat grounded despite it all. Hers is definitely a star on the rise. And it was nice to see Dennis Hopper again, even if his role was rather predictable, that of a mean-spirited old crab with a screw loose. Hopper has been playing this same screwball for the past 50 years.

But despite some good performances and some well-crafted writing, the film overall is a failure, and it fails because it is really only half a film. And a comment like this begs serious questions about the intentions of the production staff.

Did Maher intend this film to drift off into limbo like a bad slice-of-life film, the sort of rubbish that was popular a few decades ago? Or did the recent writers strike have something to do with this, a saboteur perhaps? I am being facetious here, but I am also honestly puzzled about this film. It seems almost as if the screenwriter, Zac Stanford, with few titles to his credit, simply walked away from the project at the halfway point and left the actors to their own devices. In any event, the result is half baked and unacceptable.

Rated R for a few choice words and a scene or two of violence, “Sleepwalking” runs for one hour and 41 minutes.

 JEFF KLEMZAK of La Crescenta is a devoted film fan.

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