REVIEW: Eloquent, Unusual Myth of the American Sleepover Captures the Enduring Wistfulness of Teenhood
What's daring about The Myth of the American Sleepover, a modest, untroubled elegy for the passages of middle-American youth, is as straightforward as it is uncommon. Working within a well-worn format -- the hometown coming-of-age drama -- the effect of feature-debut writer and director David Robert Mitchell's intensely personal attention to tone and the flow of emotional currents is one of negative exposure, a setting of the genre into a stark and original relief. Conspicuous among his choices was to set and shoot the film in his native suburban Michigan and give it a largely local, unknown cast, several with twanging accents intact. The girls are built as girls that age tend to be -- with variety, but tending toward awkwardness -- and the boys are as small and reedy as we rarely remember them to be. In other words, it looks more like your teenage world than such films generally allow, and it's not pretty. It's beautiful.
Set over a single night before the beginning of a new school year, The Myth of the American Sleepover interweaves the evening plans of about 20 young kids, all bound by either their schooling or their neighborhood. High school practices have already begun, and so the track is where new-to-town Claudia (Amanda Bauer) meets Janelle (Shayla Curran), an insinuating blonde who adds the pretty but reticent freshman to her sleepover's guest list and shows a suspicious interest in Claudia's senior boyfriend. Maggie (Claire Sloma) is the multi-pierced, close-cropped alterna-girl with the more retiring best friend (Annette DeNoyer); led by Maggie's inchoate desire for one or both of the cute boys she spots over the course of the day, they blow off the sleepover for a co-ed party by the lake. Sloma is somewhat disastrously mannered in the role, taking believable "is-this-pretty" girlish tics too far into toxic camera consciousness. As Rob, a soon-to-be handsome kid with a libido he is led by but can't quite expedite, Marlon Morton is better directed to do nothing when in doubt, and let the audience sort it out.
Mitchell leaves plenty of room for you and your own memories, whatever they may be or however you grew up, to inhabit the 10-or-so square blocks limned by the story. Long sequences of kids crossing paths in the street, sleeping bags and pillows stuffed under their arms, Ouija board intrigue, roving, innocuous packs of boys, and the hunt for a mysterious girl who looks like a cross between Ellen Barkin and Mandy Moore work to evoke that moment when the world was a contained topography. The Myth of the American Sleepover will be accused of making another cheap play for youth nostalgia, when in fact it is a more fully realized portrait of how crappy and confusing teenage life can be. Lacking direction or a sure sense of themselves in the moment, several of the characters express their longing either for years just past ("I miss tag," one beer-swilling boy says) or a fast-forward past college into the adult future. In this it's a wholly accurate reminder of the teenager's impatience and/or disinterest in the slow-motion present, which is ironically attended by an unfocused yearning for that same present -- one so powerful that, if it's wasted, it must find some other outlet in time. I suspect that's a feeling that the relative presence or absence of smartphones can't touch.
This is the sort of abstracted memory that's stirred not by concrete longing but, say, by the smell of wet sidewalk on a summer night. (For me it's the sound of a skateboard rumbling several blocks away, and by extension the creepy quiet that made it audible.) The double irony is that it is just this kind of memory that proves most potent for adults considering this time in their lives. With a little more conviction, Mitchell could have taken that feeling, the product of a combination of nuanced writing and a good ear for teenage dialogue, a strong and sedate style, and unpolished performances, and pushed it someplace new. Instead the film's various storylines, including one about an older brother home from college (Brett Jacobsen, who looks more than a decade older than everyone else; a pointed but too successful choice, perhaps) and fixated on the romantic idea of a younger set of twins from his old high school (Ady and Anna Abbey), culminate in sweet but overly tidy endings. Like the evening he draws out so lovingly, Mitchell's daring has limits -- this time, anyway.