The tale of a lonely, cancer-stricken woman and the long-lost daughter who quietly seeks a reunion, Christopher Münch's The Sleepy Time Gal calls to mind the classic "female weepies" of the '30s and '40s, in which the heroine's self-sacrifice leads to teary redemption. But instead of ratcheting up the melodrama and emotional catharsis, Münch (The Hours And Times, Color Of A Brisk And Leaping Day) achieves something closer to the muted elegance of short fiction, informing his story with subtle narrative rhymes and poetic flashbacks that float as freely as memories. Leading an outstanding ensemble cast, Jacqueline Bisset reinvents herself in middle age much the way Charlotte Rampling did in Under The Sand and Signs & Wonders, bringing new and unexpected depths to a face that once graced glossy magazine covers. Supremely confident and self-contained, Bisset doesn't grab for the big actorly moments even when they're available to her, which makes her character's painful quest for reconciliation seem all the more poignant and real. Opening for no discernible reason in the mid-'80s, The Sleepy Time Gal follows two parallel storylines that are obviously bound to intersect, but in a less predictable way than initially seems likely. In one, Bisset's terminal cancer diagnosis causes her to take stock of her past and pay a visit to Seymour Cassel, an old and not entirely extinguished flame she hasn't seen in 30 years. Free-spirited in her youth, Bisset left behind a trail of destruction in her wake, including a child she and Cassel gave up for adoption in Daytona Beach, where she seduced listeners as the host of a late-night radio show. In a grand coincidence, her now-grown daughter, played with characteristic intensity by Martha Plimpton, returns to her birthplace as a corporate lawyer assigned to take over the same radio station. Without making any explicit connection to Bisset, Plimpton is nonetheless struck by an urge to seek out her birth mother, not knowing that the woman doesn't have much time to live. Nick Stahl, another soulful young actor, rounds out the cast as Bisset's 20-year-old son, a fledgling San Francisco art photographer who grapples with the same feelings of love, guilt, regret, and grief as he prepares to say goodbye to his mother. For most screenwriters, the ending would seem to be a simple game of connect-the-dots, but even with the strange psychic bonds that bring this family together, Münch cleverly elides what appears to be a foregone conclusion. Given a clear opportunity to wring a river of tears—which might have helped the film pick up a distributor back at Sundance 2001—he consistently opts instead for a more delicate, bittersweet tone. The richest and most distinguished effort to date from a major independent talent, The Sleepy Time Gal may seem "European" in sensibility, but only because there's so little room for American films of its kind.
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