The Myth of the American Sleepover

[22 July 2011]

By Jesse Hassenger

Affections and Expectations

The Myth of the American Sleepover: what an unwieldy and borderline pretentious title for such a simple, delicate movie. David Robert Mitchell’s naturalistic debut has a touch of the lyrical mumblecore style seen in Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA and Quiet City, but with its own sort of directness.

The film—opening in theaters on 22 July and available on demand on the 27th—follows a loosely connected group of Michigan teenagers of varying ages. Most of their nighttime leisure activities hover on the cusp of the mysterious transition from sleepovers to full-fledged parties. Maggie (Claire Sloma) gets invitations to both—a sleepover held by a friend from dance class, and an older boy’s “swimming and drinking kind of party.” Rob (Marlon Morton), meanwhile, roams around, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, from a boys’ sleepover to girls’ houses to secret underground makeout tunnels, searching for a girl he doesn’t know. He saw her in the supermarket earlier that day, and wants to claim her before every 15-year-old in town sees her in the hallways and notices her beauty. He doesn’t know anything about her, but his odds seem better when she seems like a secret.

These kinds of fleeting, impulsive crushes drive much of the movie’s action, which takes place over the course of a day and a night, give or take. Many teen movies have employed this structure. Usually they’re set on the last day of school, but Myth takes place on the last real night of summer, before a new school year begins. The distinction is crucial; it makes the transition subtler. The kids’ lives are changing, but not dramatically; friends are not yet parting for colleges and jobs.

Scott (Brett Jacobsen), though, should be heading to college—he’s due back at Chicago for his senior year, and finds himself unsure about whether he wants to go. Depressed about a break-up, he gets intel from his little sister Jen (Mary Wardell) about a couple of girls, the Abbey twins (Nikita and Jade Ramsey). One of them maybe used to have a crush on him, and he goes off to find them. Though he makes this decision through an additional layer of sad nostalgia, Scott, like Rob, forgoes a plan in favor of his hormonal instincts. No one in the movie has a clear idea of where the night is headed. They just hope it will be somewhere great.

And so these teenagers do a lot of wandering. Sometimes they stumble into situations that recall sex comedies, like an immodest older sister of a friend, spotted bathing, or a date with twins. And then they don’t know quite what to do about it. They aren’t inarticulate (some of them are surprisingly expressive—maybe even a touch too thoughtful at times), but even the older ones are still learning how to navigate adolescence. Mitchell is sensitive to the idea that these kids may not know exactly what they want or who they like, apart from a vague but insistent desire to be liked back by someone, anyone, as their affections and expectations shift and waver. The sleepovers, held over from childhood, become vehicles for these explorations.

The Myth of the American Sleepover is less concerned with romantic suspense than on observation. It’s a movie about feelings and behavior, not who gets laid before summer’s end. Mitchell (ably assisted by cinematographer James Laxton) has an arresting eye for little details, like the way Maggie and her friend Beth (Annette DeNoyer) hold their stolen beers by the public pool, or the way Rob’s keychain holds exactly one key, plus one of those picture boxes where you look at a tiny image inside. The teenagers don’t keep their eyes on cell phones or laptop screens; they write addresses on each other’s arms, and prowl around looking for each other.

Noticing the lack of those modern technologies, as well as the presence of boxier television sets and older cars, I realized at some point that The Myth of the American Sleepover is not set in the present. Maybe the early ‘90s, it’s hard to tell. Yet in its way, it seems recent, too, maybe because it vividly evokes rituals that may change in specifics but nonetheless survive across generations. Whether or not it’s actually set in 1994, it feels a bit like my adolescence. It probably feels like a lot of people’s.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/145262-the-myth-of-the-american-sleepover/