Saturday, February 09, 2013

SF Indie Fest ’13: The Other Side of Sleep

Whenever someone starts sleep-walking in the movies, you know a dead body will soon turn up.  That is about the only convention of the psychological suspense genre followed in this Irish excursion into somnambulism.  Mood trumps cheap thrills in Rebecca Daly’s The Other Side of Sleep (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

Arlene’s life kind of bites.  It all goes back to her early childhood when her mother mysteriously vanished.  Since then, she has been plagued with periodic bouts of sleepwalking.  Recently, it has started again in a bad way.  Waking up in her crummy bed-sit all scratched up and muddy, Arlene is distressed to discover her mother’s bracelet is missing.

While at her dreary factory job, Arlene subsequently learns a local woman about her age but considerably more social has been murdered in the nearby woods.  The crime resonates with her, stirring memories of her mother’s disappearance.  Following her compulsions, Arlene befriends the dead girl’s sister Donna and does not completely discourage the overtures of her bad boy boyfriend, upon whom most of the community’s suspicions have fallen.

Mystery fans should understand upfront, the greatest moments of nervous trepidation in Sleep involve the proximity of Arlene’s fingers to the factory’s power saw.  To be fair, they will make most viewers antsy, but overall the film is far removed from Hitchcockian territory.  Instead, Daly is concerned with how deeply rooted grief and abandonment issues manifest themselves over time.  While it is an extreme character study, Daly maintains a vibe of dream-like emotional detachment.  Despite the fact a murder has occurred, few dramatic stakes will present themselves over the course of the film.

Nevertheless, Antonia Campbell-Hughes is quite impressive as Arlene.  While her character is reserved to the point of introverted, Campbell-Hughes powerfully conveys all the pain she carries locked up inside.  In fact, the entire ensemble consistently hits the right notes as the bereft and down-trodden citizens Offaly.

With Sleep, Daly became the first Irishwoman filmmaker to screen a film in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes.  Hopefully, such a prestigious claim is a sufficient return on investment for the Irish Film Board, which supported Sleep, because it is not likely to do much to spur Irish tourism.  Indeed, Daly’s vision of provincial Ireland is decidedly grungy and menacing, well served by cinematographer Suzie Lavelle’s eerily suggestive work. 

With her feature debut, Daly shows a mastery of atmosphere and scene-setting, but her storytelling skills are not at the same level.  The former are all well and good, but the latter talent is what will sustain a filmmaker over a long career.  An interesting but demanding start, The Other Side of Sleep should intrigue self-selecting patrons when it screens this coming Friday (2/15) and the following Thursday (2/22) at the Roxie Theatre as part of the 2013 SF Indie Fest.