It’s fitting that Sleepwalk with Me should play at Sundance London. It’s the kind of film which is reminiscent of the intimate, warmly humorous and sharply perceptive indie cinema which really came to personify the festival during the early 90s.
The brainchild of US comedian Mike Birbiglia, it’s a film whose cinematic roots actually reach even further back than that Sundance era. It uses a similar template of surrealist fantasy interludes combined with achingly honest and all-too-painful moments of relationship fragility found in Woody Allen’s earlier work, particular his 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall.
Like Allen, Birbiglia places himself front and centre as both the main star and narrator (this is via a frequently amusing cutaway device of having his character comment on the story, whilst he’s driving). He goes even further in aping his idol by making the character a stand up, although when we first meet him in the film, he’s at a stagnant juncture in his career where even Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer would seriously contemplate calling it quits.
Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio – an aspiring comedian who has infinity more gigs as a bartender than he does being in the spotlight on stage. He’s unable to make a lifelong commitment to his exceptionally supportive girlfriend (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) despite the fact they have been together for almost a decade. Matt’s other hang-ups manifest themselves in his bizarre sleepwalking incidents, which conjure up both comical and frightening moments for him to deal with. A career breakthrough is finally established when he moves away from his dated comedy material and begins to comment and dissect his personal life, which seems to go over well with an audience. But as the gigs begin to mount up, his relationship becomes increasingly sidelined.
Birbiglia’s dead-pan, monotonous style is perfectly matched to his character’s myriad idiosyncrasies, and that un-showy (sometimes far from likable) screen presence makes him all the more intriguing and easy to relate with. It’s undeniably a very personal project for him, and that closeness to the material lends the film an authenticity and believability.
The director revealed in a post-screening Q&A that, due to the lack of interest from UK cinema distributors, the film has debuted here on iTunes. That’s a real shame as this little gem is fully deserving of a big-screen release. While it’s hardly the kind of feature which would leave couples feeling all warm and fuzzy upon exiting the cinema, that downbeat nature is precisely why it would appeal to those looking for something outside of the usual anaemic romantic offerings. The mix of broad laughs and excruciating truths makes for a highly watchable and intuitive experience, and if the small screen is the only place to seek out Sleepwalk with Me, it’s better than missing out altogether.