Sleepless (2015): a pleasant non-romance about urban insomnia

Sleepless only pretends to be a romantic film; in truth, it is a story about brokenness and healing, set against the charm of the city at night.

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Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Roco as Gem and Barry in the film Sleepless, hanging out on a rooftop.

The call center industry, well-known for employing its workers in graveyard shifts, and which is ironically called one of the nation’s sunrise industries, lends Philippine cities a unique claim to the title of the city that never sleeps. While contenders for the nickname in other continents are havens of endless leisure and nightlife and luxury, Manila (or Cebu or Bacolod) are inhabited by night dwellers who forgo sleep not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Many of them, that is, but not all. Sleepless, an entry to the 2015 QCinema (Quezon City) Film Festival, is ambivalent about the call center industry. It is tempting for a film with such a premise to be an echo chamber of critical sociopolitical sentiments: that this outsourcing industry disadvantages our nation in a neo-imperialist world order, that it enslaves its workers under alienating working conditions, et cetera, et cetera. But for Sleepless, the graveyard shift, the darkness of ungodly hours, is just a backdrop to its story, the circumstances that its characters happen to inhabit.

Note: this essay is an in-depth commentary on the film, and includes spoilers by necessity. It is meant for those who have seen the film.

Gem (Glaiza de Castro), the story’s daydreaming insomniac heroine, reflects this outlook. Friends and family are pressuring her to leave the call center and find a more prestigious job, but she simply says, “Masaya pa naman ako.” (“I’m still happy with my job.”) With her credentials and the connections of her friends, it is clear that she could easily find a more regular job; but she is determined to stay, and we are invited to find out what motivates her so.

In contrast, Barry (Dominic Roco), starts his job in the call center with hesitation, like the stereotypical agent who looks at his job as lucrative but going nowhere. Gem, quite the good performer in the company, is assigned to be his training buddy. They discover they are apartment neighbors, and they soon become partners in crime.

Here, Sleepless, while subdued in tone overall, shows a few attempts at levity. The two find solace in a convenience store—those 24-by-7 establishments loyally visited by night shift employees on break. Over steaming cups of instant noodles, they imagine their weapons of choice for a zombie apocalypse. The comedy is welcome but never excessive; it is as if the film’s sense of humor is itself tired and sleepy.

The companionship changes both of them. Early in the film, Gem and Barry are sleepyheads, wasting away their nights awake on their beds; at work, they spend their breaks with heads on desks, always chasing after the sleep they cannot get at night. But as the story goes on, they grow less and less sleepy.

They find that the city at night is often lonely, but comforting in its own way. They discover that there is warmth in its cold streets, especially if one has someone to navigate it with. Sleep eludes them, so in their wakefulness they try to escape life. They find joy in each other’s friendship: they try out skateboarding; they hang out at rooftops, convenience stores, and the neighborhood pares restaurant; they watch other people talking and imagine what goes on in the conversations they cannot hear.

Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Roco as Gem and Barry in the film Sleepless, hanging out on a rooftop.
Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Roco as Gem and Barry in Sleepless. Image from fb.com/filmsleepless/

Yet, Sleepless is not a romance; it only masquerades as one. It is not about insomniacs falling in love with each other. The film, following the cue of the dysfunctional light bulb in Gem’s bathroom, is a story about brokenness.

We find out that Gem feels estranged from her mother (Irma Adlawan), who had remarried after her father died of cancer. At the pares joint with Barry, she looks at all the other couples dining and tells Barry that they are all cheaters. She thinks there is a ‘polygamous gene’, that all men are naturally unfaithful. Not surprisingly, Gem is revealed be in an affair herself with a sophisticated married man, Vince (TJ Trinidad). Vince treats her mostly like a precious, pretty object to show off when he goes to fine restaurants and art galleries. (Gem mentions to Barry that she does not like her name, that it is too precious and she deserves something more ordinary.) Once, lonely and sleepless while lying on her bed, Gem rings Vince’s phone to no avail; here she is, a call center agent who spends her days selling services to faceless people halfway across the world, but in her loneliest moments her own phone is useless and uncomforting.

In another scene, Vince brings Gem to look at an exhibit of abstract art. They stare at a canvas of meaningless geometric lines; Vince plays art professor, and tells Gem to appreciate the depth of impressions that the piece evokes. She resists, saying that she prefers the clear, familiar, and plainly comprehensible. Later, Vince leaves her to congratulate the artist. The camera pans to Gem, splendid in her fashionable dress, but surrounded by gallery pieces in the frame, some of which portray human eyes—suggesting her place in Vince’s world, which is to be just another artwork, just another beautiful but powerless object to gaze at.

Glaiza de Castro as Gem in Sleepless (2015), sitting in a contemporary art gallery.
Glaiza de Castro as Gem in Sleepless (2015). Screen capture from youtube.com/watch?v=nHlwpE9mQcw

Barry, incidentally, keeps drawings in his apartment. These are art pieces of the clear, familiar, comprehensible variety that Gem appreciates. But Sleepless is not a romance and this is not a plot device to nudge Gem’s heart and make her fall for Barry; the drawings instead lead Barry to reveal his own brokenness.

We learn of Barry’s son, Jason, and the mother who took him away, separating him from Barry, and leaving for another country. The drawings that Barry treasure so much are of Jason. We watch Barry and Gem shop for toys, so he can pack them into a box of love he can send to the only clue he has of Jason’s whereabouts: an address in Canada whose accuracy he cannot even verify. Here we see it again: a broken person whose job requires him to reach across to all sorts of people far away, yet in a personal capacity cannot connect with the kid who matters to him most.

Sleepless denies us an easy, satisfying climax. It asks us to be like Vince, looking at a seemingly plain story, brows knotted as we try to derive meaning from it. But, as suggested by the flickering lamp in Gem’s bathroom, which has been long defective and would never have been fixed, had no outsider entered Gem’s life and pointed out what needs fixing: there is indeed a subtle thread to be found that serves as the film’s story arc. Gem and Barry’s encounter, while not the romantic engagement the film misleads us into expecting, fulfills their character’s destinies. It changes them and enables them to do what they needed to do with their lives. It is the healing experience of an earnest, comfortable friendship that allows them to overcome their brokenness.

Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Roco as Gem and Barry, lying on a bed in the film Sleepless.
Image from fb.com/filmsleepless/

Barry finally gets the chance to fly to Canada, to embark on a difficult search for his family. The funds for the trip come from a piece of jewellery owned by Gem, which was given to her by Vince but which she sells willingly to help Barry. The act is doubly symbolic, as Gem herself at last finds the courage to let go of Vince.

We know that they have reached a turning point because one night, the insomniacs find themselves finally able to fall asleep, next to each other on Gem’s bed. When the morning sun wakes them up, they look at one another and smile—not because something happened between them, no, there was no romance; but because they know that while they still have many things to fix in their lives, they have found a kindred spirit in each other.

Notes

Sleepless won the NETPAC Jury Prize for Best Picture at the Circle Competition section of the 2015 QCinema Film Festival. Dominic Roco also won Best Actor. It was directed by Prime Cruz and written by Jen Chuaunsu.

The film is scored by BP Valenzuela, whose musical sensibilities, it may be said, match the film’s themes and visual quality. She uses three of her songs from The Neon Hour for the film, including Steady, which kicks in during the film’s breathtaking final shot.

Writer Jen Chuaunsu, director Prime Cruz, and the lead actors Dominic Roco and Glaiza de Castro at the gala premiere of Sleepless on Oct. 23, 2015, at Gateway Cinemas in Quezon City.
Writer Jen Chuaunsu, director Prime Cruz, and the lead actors Dominic Roco and Glaiza de Castro at the gala premiere of Sleepless on Oct. 23, 2015, at Gateway Cinemas in Quezon City.

Minor edits were made to this article on Jan. 22 and on May 26, 2017. A further edit was made on June 3 to correct an erroneous statement that Gem is an illegitimate daughter.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

24 thoughts on “Sleepless (2015): a pleasant non-romance about urban insomnia”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Super nagsisisi ako na hindi ako nanood ng QCinema, since di ko nga ito napanood. Are there anyways I will be able to watch this film?

    1. Hi, try following/messaging their official FB page, facebook.com/filmsleepless 🙂 I can see there that in the past few weeks they’ve been screening in San Juan City. With all the praises this film has gathered, I’m sure it will continue to be screened in art houses here and there. I hope it’ll come soon to a theater near you, and thanks for dropping by!

  2. Hi, besides BP Valenzuela’s Steady. What other songs are used in the film? There is one particular song used somewhere in the middle of the film that I am looking for. It’s sounds indie but I can’t seem to find it. Even shazam can’t recognize the song title. Can you help me?

    1. Hi, I asked the guys behind this film’s official Facebook page, and they told me that only three songs were used in Sleepless, and they were all by BP Valenzuela.

      Aside from ‘Steady’, “there were two other BP Valenzuela songs used in the movie. “Pretty Car” in the skate scene and “Early Late” used in the montage before they sleep together.”

      Also, “BP scored the film, so her sound is heard throughout. But those three are the only existing songs we used.”

      You can sample (and buy!) BP’s music on Bandcamp: https://bpvalenzuela.bandcamp.com/album/the-neon-hour

      1. Thanks a lot. The skateboard scene song is the one i’m looking for. Cool! Now I can rest in peace 🙂

  3. Aaahh this is so good! I just watched it recently and your review made me appreciate the film even more. Thanks for this! 🙂

  4. I think the writer mistook Gem as an illegitimate child. No, she’s not. She’s the daughter of Irma Adlawan to her first husband who died of cancer. This is why, Irma had had a little child.

    1. I’ve seen the film twice, so this is a bit embarrassing. I’ll try to confirm this, then update as necessary. (Though it doesn’t really change the review’s analysis much.) Thank you, and for the link too.

      1. Yup. I agree that she’s not an illegitimate daughter. I think , imho (though not implied directly by the movie) that she threw herself out because her mother remarried. Great review by the way, I am planning to make an alternative poster/ fan art for the film, do you happen to know where they shot those helipad scenes? Thanks

      2. You’re right, guys. I’ve updated the review. I got this message from the Sleepless people: “Gem is Irma Adlawan’s child from her first husband who had died of cancer. At the birthday party of Gem’s sister, Tiffany, Gem calls Tiffany’s father, Tito because he’s her mother’s second husband. Her mother reminds her that she is still part of her family. It is hinted that Gem doesn’t visit them often because she feels out of place in their family. Then in the scene where she lends Barry a blue shirt, Gem tells him that the shirt belonged to her dad. She tells him that her dad died. She used to look after her father at the hospital where he would spend his sleepless nights drawing.”

        Olie—I think that helipad’s at Malayan Plaza in Ortigas. Glad you liked the review. 🙂

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