TURN ON NPR and you'll probably hear an example of storytelling's popularity: "Real people" telling "true stories" are everywhere these days. Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia is a real person who has a true story about his career in comedy, ending a relationship, and a sleep disorder, and he's gotten pretty good at telling it: First in a one-man show, then a book, and now the gently endearing film Sleepwalk with Me, co-written with storytelling high priest Ira Glass.
The likeable Birbiglia narrates the story, and the film cuts between Birbiglia telling his story and seeing the story actually happen. "Matt Pandamiglio" (Birbiglia) is an aspiring stand-up comedian, who's stuck in a relationship he can't commit to and has recently developed some pretty... visceral nightmares.
The great Lauren Ambrose (Can't Hardly Wait! Six Feet Under!) plays Abby, Matt's long-time girlfriend. "Everyone thinks the best thing about my life is my girlfriend," he laments, and it's true: She's wonderful. But he doesn't want to marry Abby, and his anxiety begins manifesting in dreams that his body acts out.
Birbiglia's sleepwalking is the least interesting element of the film—after one or two sequences of him tearing down a hotel hallway half-naked, dreaming a man with a gun is chasing him, the point is pretty much made. (Other people's dreams are dull. No exceptions.) More compelling is the window into Birbiglia's stand-up career, which takes off after a guru-like Marc Maron—playing "Marc Mulheren"—urges Birbiglia to tell jokes about his actual life instead of the clunkers he's been recycling since college.
Birbiglia reminds us, several times, that what we're watching is a true story—but he cast his movie with his famous comedian friends, and changed everyone's names, just a little. Describing a story as "true" suggests there's only one way to tell it, but if this mild little comedy has a moral, it's this: Even a true story is changed in the telling. The best we can do is to tell our stories honestly and well.