Teen-oriented ensemble films, perhaps because of their emphasis on the entry and awakening into adulthood, have a tendency to focus on a short and very specific length of time, usually a day followed by a night (followed by a morning). Movies have a long history of this, stretching back at least as far as the granddaddy of the genre, Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but also including such distinguished fare as George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI, John Hughes’ THE BREAKFAST CLUB and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, and Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED. Once the sun goes down, so these films would imply, teens – whether jocks, nerds, stoners, dorks, or cool kids – tend to collectively drop their social disguises, rendering them suddenly somnambulant and reflective, like wandering philosophers in the night (a bit like adults, incidentally!).
Like the cinematic fountain of youth, these types of films seem to ask adult viewers: how cool would it be to be young again, and yet mature enough to appreciate it? Or, in a more general sense, remember what it was like to have your whole life ahead of you?
From the overly wordy title alone – THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER – it is clear that first-time writer/director David Robert Mitchell is well-versed in this body of work, yet he proves wise enough not to resort to a mere tribute or rehash.
The film follows four main characters: Rob (Marlon Morton), a sensitive middle schooler about to make the jump to high school, whose hormones are raging and can’t get that girl he saw at the grocery store out of his head; high schooler Claudia (Amanda Bauer) – new in town – who stumbles upon evidence that her boyfriend may not have been quite honest with her; high schooler Maggie (Claire Sloma), who yearns for at least one sexual adventure before summer’s end; and Scott (Brett Jacobsen), home from college, but whose life has seemingly stalled out and who suddenly cannot seem to shake the memory of a girl – or girls, as it may be – from his younger, more exciting, high school days. Aside from these main characters the film features a dozen or so other supporting ones, giving the film a fully-fleshed out feel. Like Linklater, Mitchell does not seem to believe in throw-away characters.
THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER is a true indie, filmed mainly in the suburbs of Detroit, and Mitchell works wonders with a cast of near-unknowns, wringing all of the expected dreams, hopes, and angst from a group of characters perched incipiently on adulthood. The film features a number of unexpected and well-thought-out plot-turns, but is also wise enough to dwell upon the ephemeral details: the tap-tap-tapping of a girl’s toe ring against the side of a bathtub, the emotional and physical rush of a first kiss, the reek of a cigarette or the sting of a beer in the nostrils on a warm summer’s night. The film’s soundtrack, though minimal, is effective and features a few lovely songs.
Much like those long summer’s nights we remember as kids and teenagers, The Myth of the American Sleepover may draw out the moment for maximum impact, but it also eventually – and necessarily – draws to a close and the sun comes up, its characters wistful, but wiser. Youth here is treated like a whisper – eminently worth savoring, but over almost before we know it.
Incidentally, Mitchell has recently released his second movie – continuing his interest in the worlds of youth and teen-oriented genres – with the nerve-jangling IT FOLLOWS, an indie horror film which will necessarily garner favorable comparisons to THE SHINING and Asian shockers such as RINGU, THE EYE and PULSE.