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Sundance 2012: Sleepwalk With Me

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As you might expect from a film co-produced by WBEZ Chicago's This American Life, Sleepwalk With Me is an autobiographically-inspired film that is intimate, funny and sincere. It offers a take on the New American Manchild archetype that engenders empathy.

Mike Birbiglia plays the lightly fictionalized Matt Pandamiglio, a guy who just wants to follow his dream of being a standup comic. So what if he constantly, if inadvertently, rejects his girlfriend of eight years? The guy wants to make people laugh, and his way to a fresh voice is to talk about how the only way he'll get married is if he's sure "nothing else good is going to happen in my life." While he tells this joke on tour, his fiancee Abby (played with the depth and light that Lauren Ambrose always seems to bring to her projects) is planning their ill-conceived wedding.

Birbiglia is so darn affable, you want him to succeed, and soon, because Abby is also so likable that you hope maybe the whole wedding thing will work out and they'll be happy. Such casual charm permeates the whole story that even devices like breaking of the fourth wall, which can sometimes feel contrived, feel natural. Of course he's addressing you, because of course you're there relating to this story, right?

Well, kind of. If I hadn't already seen The Comedy, which also features a New American Manchild -- though of a much, much harsher sort -- I might have not started to wonder about a broader pattern of how this "Dream Big" American ethos gets so ingrained in us. Do we still have the capacity to "Dream Small" and value intimacy and slowness and maybe even settling down? Or are the people who choose that path just different from the people who make independent movies? Can we have sustainable lives, or by extension, a sustainable culture if we stop valuing those humbler things in favor of Living the Dream? The impossible dream, I mean. Not that nice reasonable one our parents sometimes managed.

Sleepwalk with Me addresses the subconscious nudge that something might not be right via the titular sleepwalking. The dream sequences allow the story to travel toward the intersection of honest and embarrassing while still flowing well with the story. No small task for dream sequences. This is where Birbiglia/Pandamiglio's fears are, and they're relatable fears, which humanize the New American Manchild and help you understand what drives him (both toward and away). There's anguish in them, but they're presented buoyantly. Like he takes them in stride. Until he jumps out of a second story window (true story). In other hands, this would be harrowing, but here it is mixed with humor in a way that makes it altogether more memorable. Dude needs a change. And so he breaks off his engagement with Abby in favor of the road.

In the film's denoument, he talks about how he visited Abby, now married with children upstate somewhere, and asked her why she stayed with him so long. She tells him she didn't want to hurt him. He seems both flabbergasted and touched by this, and it's hard to understand why. Mike/Matt is very aware of what he wants but seems unaware of the effects he has on anyone outside himself who isn't part of an audience.

But can you blame him? Haven't we all become narcissists to an extent that the term barely means anything? If you stop wanting families, how do you sustain communities? I really wish I would stop seeing microcosmic metaphors for how we as a country made such a mess of things via some of these personal stories I'm seeing at Sundance; but this is the definitive American film festival, and so it makes sense that it would help us define ourselves. Sleepwalk With Me holds up a clear and shiny mirror, one that truly reflects this American life.