Wide Awake (documentary)

“Self-indulgent” isn’t usually a compliment, but I mean it that way for “Wide Awake,” a fascinatingly self-indulgent look at one man’s battle with insomnia.

Alan Berliner is a New York filmmaker whose previous documentaries have mostly been about himself and his family, too. How a person makes money at this, I have no idea. But he and his wife Shari live comfortably, if modestly, and are plagued by only one problem: Alan can’t sleep.

He tells us he’s been this way for years, unable to turn his active mind off at night, tossing and turning before finally getting only a few hours of restless sleep. He’s tried every usual remedy, and the only one with any efficacy is sleeping pills — and even those only grant him a little respite.

Berliner narrates the film himself, sometimes on camera, sometimes as a voice-over, and the movie works as a personal record of his own search for answers. He takes us with him on visits to sleep experts and psychologists, who struggle to find the roots of his problem or a solution to it. He films kitchen-table discussions between him, Shari, his sister Lynn and his mother Regina, all of whom exhibit more exasperation than sympathy. Their unspoken opinion seems to be: Just go to sleep! How hard could it be?

One thing we learn is that Berliner is obsessive to an alarming degree. For years, he has cut out newspaper photos and cataloged them extensively by topic. As a photographer and artist, his interest in such things might be understandable. But it’s hard to think that when you see him sitting on the floor surrounded by dozens of stacks of clippings, all piled according to subject matter. What you think instead is that this guy is not normal.

He also collects old film footage, much of it from ancient industrial shorts and educational films, all of it impressively well-organized. This works to his advantage in “Wide Awake,” where he can illustrate a point with a quick montage of clips — a series of people turning off their bedroom lights, for example, or of roosters crowing to announce the new day. It gives the movie a quirky, lively feel, and prevents it from being too dry.

Indeed, if there’s one thing Berliner has, it’s a sense of humor. He is wearied and defeated by his insomnia, but he maintains a grim smile and a sharp sense of irony through it all. “Wide Awake” addresses some broader issues, like the effect that poor sleep habits have on American society, but it’s at its best when it stays with Berliner and his own plight, which is very human and very intriguing. The whole thing makes you want to get some sleep — but again, I mean that in a good way.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for one F-word, a little other profanity.)