Asleep in My Palm (2024)

‘Asleep’ grabs hold with a full-Nelson approach

It would be easy to dismiss the scattershot “Asleep in My Palm” as a product of nepotism. But there’s more than a trace of talent showcased in Henry Nelson’s debut feature about a father and daughter living off the grid. Still, it’s doubtful that the dramedy would exist if the writer-director’s father weren’t beloved character actor Tim Blake Nelson.

Dad not only co-produced the endeavor, he also stars in it, playing Tom, a Gulf War veteran disenchanted by a country he previously risked his life to defend. Since going AWOL in the 1990s, Tom has been on the lam, one step ahead of the authorities.

Lately, he’s been living in a storage unit sustaining himself by stealing bicycles off a nearby college campus in Lorain County Ohio. Somewhere along the line, Tom acquired a smart, impressionable 16-year-old daughter brainwashed into believing it noble to withdraw from society and exist like rats nesting in the recesses of a place overlooked by myopic Americans.

If you’re sensing deja vu, it’s because it’s the same scenario Debra Granik conceived six years ago with her vastly superior “Leave No Trace.” Why the younger Nelson felt the need to cover the same territory is puzzling since it deprives his film of originality.

Even if Nelson had not been beaten to the punch, his version is almost fatally predictable. What modern-day teenager is going to be content living in a windowless space without a smartphone? Come on man! Be real. Yet, relative newcomer Chloë Kerwin (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) imbues the naive Beth Anne with such maturity and wisdom that you accept she’s satisfied with her austere lifestyle. But only to a point. After a while, it surpasses credulity.

You’re all in at the start, as the movie opens with Tom telling an obscenity-laced, somewhat skewed version of Chicken Little to a rapt Beth Anne. Little does the budding young woman realize that it’s HER sky that’s about to fall. To us, it’s an inevitability. To her, it’s a seismic event she never saw coming.

It’s a lesson delivered with a gritty realism that the younger Nelson regrettably relinquishes when he seeks to juxtapose Beth Anne’s spartan life with that of a group of slightly older, much wealthier oddballs from the neighboring university. Nelson seems under the impression that his audience has never considered the contrast between the haves and have-nots. He does score points by posing the question of who’s more well-adjusted: Beth Anne or a gaggle of liberal arts students clumsily experimenting with satanic rituals.

When the two factions improbably meet, the film comes alive with possibilities, especially when Beth Anne experiences her first sexual impulses while under the spell of the lovely and slightly vulnerable Millah, smartly played by Gus Birney. Their scene beside the college’s abandoned, decaying indoor pool perfectly defies expectations. It’s the sexy and mysterious Dark Mortius (Grant Harvey) you suspect will light Beth Anne’s fire. But, no. Rather, it’s one of Dark’s female disciples striking the spark. And, boy, does Beth Anne light up.

It epitomizes Nelson’s skills as a writer and director, as he deftly interweaves his film’s threads of class, privilege and the destructiveness of being a follower instead of following your own path. In that respect, “Asleep in My Palm” is very much of the moment in a nation that’s become far too cultish.

Yet, it’s a bit disappointing that Nelson doesn’t afford Tom the same level of empathy he does Beth Anne. There’s a reason Tom has grown so cynical and bitter, most of it tracing back to his time in the service. But why does war affect some more than others? Nelson doesn’t even try to explain it. Lucky for him, his dad is a gifted actor able to reach under the surface and extract the nuance necessary in understanding why Tom lives – more like, exists – the way he does.

How and where did the neurons start misfiring in the heads of Tom and his equally pathetic partner in crime, Jose (a terrific Jared Abrahamson), an incel longing for a connection an apathetic society is unwilling to offer. Where’s the line between our obligation to reach out and their responsibility to reach in? That’s the compelling question we’re left to ponder, but possibly too jaded to answer.

Movie review

Asleep in My Palm

Rated: Not rated

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Chloë Kerwin, Jared Abrahamson, Gus Birney and Grant Harvey

Director: Henry Nelson

Writer: Henry Nelson

Runtime: 89 minutes

Where: In theaters and on VOD

Grade: B-

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