ORDINARILY, the realization that a film's weakest elements are its narrative and its acting would be enough to dismiss the movie. However, Peter Calvin's feature debut, Sleep -- a mix of documentary, essay, and fiction -- is far enough from ordinary to be worth a look even with those handicaps. The fictional characters can be rattled off by their maladies: an insomniac (Casey Peterson) is dating a narcoleptic (Bonnie Dickenson); meanwhile, both are friends with a compulsive sleeper (Tim Innes) and his girlfriend (Ames Ingham), who is plagued with night terrors. It's a marvelous idea to bond a group of disparate people by their related disorders; unfortunately, the story that unfolds around them has little to do with sleep at all. In fact, as the film progresses, you start to wonder if Calvin lost interest in his topic somewhere along the way.

Interviews with scientists and films of people suffering from various sleep ailments eventually get supplanted by monologues (delivered by a British actress) making vague generalizations about the philosophical and metaphysical ramifications of sleep loss. Meanwhile, the four friends wander further away from the topic, eventually joining a nudist terrorist organization and butting heads with that eternal villain of independent American films, the small-town redneck. By the end it seems that anything could be thrown in, and while some may consider that a positive thing, it only dilutes Sleep's strong setup.

But if Calvin the screenwriter can't settle down, Calvin the low-budget filmmaker knows exactly what he's doing. From the first shot, the film captures perfectly the fuzzy, lurid glow that city streets give off at night, not least to the insomniac forced to wander them. The dazed, druggy sense of anything being possible (familiar to anyone who's prowled at four in the morning) pays off in some nice set pieces, particularly an impromptu visit to a late-night house party. Ironically it's these scenes, where everyone is just staying up for the hell of it, that best capture the tone of dreaming -- or the hopeless wish that one could fall asleep and dream. Either way, they are the parts of the film that most convince me there actually is a good movie buried in this indifferently thought-out hodgepodge.

Of course, it's always possible that I've missed the point entirely, and have misrepresented a smashing success as a mixed bag. You can ask the director yourself -- Peter Calvin will be attending screenings of Sleep. If nothing else, I'm convinced from his movie that he's smart enough to give great answers. Now all he needs are some good questions.