Near the end of The Myth of the American Sleepover, a pixie-cut blond and the older boy she has a crush on slip down the hollows of a water slide in the earliest hours of the morning, having agreed that they will kiss at the bottom. Half-way down, the girl stops him. “I don’t wanna kiss you,” she says, the moonlight glinting off her piercings. The water sluices past the two of them. “I mean I do,” she shrugs in a moment. “Just not right now.”
It’s one of the moments in David Robert Mitchell’s feature debut that echos the whole of this slight film that follows the aimless paths of several different adolescents on the last weekend of summer. On the precipice between vacation and school, summer and fall, they wander the quiet streets and backyards of suburban Detroit, vaguely looking for something but not sure what it is, or what they’ll do if they find it.
Maggie (Claire Sloma), the spirited girl on the water slide, spends the film boldly flirting, racing on a tenspeed from the pool to jazz dance class, from a lackluster sleepover to an older boy’s party, her nerdy best friend at her side. A painfully awkward kid named Rob (Marlon Morton) skulks through the night, determined to find the dream girl he spied in the supermarket, yet utterly intimidated by every girl he encounters. Claudia (Amanda Bauer), a snub nosed track runner who’s new in town, drinks too much cheap wine and upsets the sleepover of a catty older girl, then rejects her boyfriend, all the while aloof and uncertain of why she’s doing any of it. And Scott (Brett Jacobsen), who should be returning to college in Chicago, drives on a whim to Ann Arbor to track down a cute pair of twins he’s known since high school and is suddenly curious about.
Nothing, in the end, happens. That is, by dawn, no one has lost his virginity, altered her place in the social pecking order, or learned any conventional sort of lesson. Nevertheless, the still, silent shots of a town just waking up suggest that something has come to pass. The dots aren’t connected in any Breakfast Club sort of way, but they’re there: fragile alliances have been forged, slight boundaries crossed, little romances begun.
In this respect, The Myth of the American Sleepover is reminiscent of one of its clear predecessors, Dazed and Confused. Yet it’s even more at loose ends than that film — not least because, while the 1993 Linklater film follows sharply characterized cliques and individuals over the course of a day’s high school initiation rituals, The Myth of the American Sleepover’s small groups are never defined in terms of jocks or stoners or nerds. They all seem equally undefined, equally uncertain of themselves.
In this respect, then, The Myth of the American Sleepover’s best moments are its smallest ones, when Mitchell’s camera picks up the sort of minutiae that is so genuine it feels like it could never be fabricated, only found. One of my favorite of these moments is when, from behind a supermarket display, an awkward freshman watches as a girl kneels to select a bottle of shampoo: his eyes travel to her ankle as she absently tugs at the strap of her sandal, then up as she opens a bottle and sniffs it before deciding upon it and drifting out of the aisle. The boy, suddenly even more awkward in his oversized shorts and T-shirt, then kneels to inhale the odor of the shampoo his new crush has just lifted to her nose.
If the unformed shape of their characters makes these adolescents feel more authentic, in all their awkward, imperfect, uncertain idleness, it also makes the film itself feel somewhat undefined. That is, Mitchell is not so much telling us a story as he is showing us some moments. As viewers, we watch with the expectation that something will happen, much as these kids anticipate something momentous that will mark their final weekend of the summer.
But instead of allowing us to suspend our disbelief by the hooks of plot and dialogue more streamlined and stylized than the average teenager’s world, Mitchell lets us feel as though someone has left the camera on. We spy on a cluster of gangling teenage boys rewinding the nude scenes in the slasher movie they sit watching in someone’s living room. We listen to girls in pajamas making empty boasts as they drink from a bottle of liquor. Even what the belligerent Claudia discovers in another girl’s diary is small potatoes. Is this the myth of the American sleepover — that, like the heart of Saturday night, there’s nothing really there?
Yet The Myth of the American Sleepover is oddly nostalgic, even as it depicts the excruciation of adolescence. In scene after scene it shows us the stilted exchanges and fumblings of an age group that is still an uncomfortable mystery to itself, but it sets these scenes against the reflection of fully canopied trees in a car windshield, or the spray of water refracting sunlight at a public swimming pool.
The film ends with the small town’s parade, the kids glancing at one another across the floats and marching bands and dancing high school girls. There is an easy bitter-sweetness to that parade that the camera allows to pass, unremarkably, down the street.