The Myth of the American Sleepover

August 2, 2011

Late one night, in the waning days of summer, a boy and a girl sit on a floating dock just offshore from a high school party.  The girl, about to enter her freshman year, explains that she skipped a friend’s slumber party to be there.  The boy, about to be a junior, extols the virtues of slumber parties, and mourns the loss of childhood that comes with moving onto the more teenage pursuits of high school parties and social status.  “I don’t want you to buy into all this youthful adventure bullshit,” he explains.  The air of wistful mourning for innocence lost colours every frame of writer/director David Roger Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover.  Not necessarily mourning by the characters, but always by the director and, by extension, the film itself.  

It is only plainly spoken in that one scene.  In fact, that might be the most plainly spoken piece of the whole film.  Taking place over the course of A Long Night, Myth is operating in the same wheelhouse as Lucas’ American Graffiti and Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.  Those films’ ambling narratives and scattered cast of characters were set in very specific periods (the 50s and late 70s, respectively), stamping them with a definitive – and autobiographical for the creators – nostalgia.  The effect of filming a time twenty or so years after it has passed is two fold:  it allows for colourful period details like the clothing, the music, and the cars to give a fantastical element for modern viewers to revel in, and it creates an artificial lens through which the audience can view the piece.  We are looking back on the past as opposed to being immersed in the present, and we understand that our perspective is that of nostalgic bemusement.  Myth concedes no such artificiality.   It takes place in the present and it is about kids now.  It also strips away all the fantastical story and setting elements of contemporary Hollywood teen films, taking away the comic set pieces and artificial gloss of everything from John Hughes’ 80s output to Can’t Hardly Wait and American PieMyth’s aim is honesty, and its presentation belies a desire for emotional realism.  It doesn’t (and probably can’t) achieve such lofty goals, however, for despite the aesthetic, this is as much a romantic fantasy as any of those films from which it draws inspiration.

Myth’s loose structure follows four teenagers of different ages as they navigate a long night of sleepovers and parties.  Maggie (Claire Soma) is the girl on the floating dock, and she’s vaguely resolved to have some sort of summer fling with a lifeguard from the local pool.  Rob (Marlon Morton) believes he shared a moment with a girl in a supermarket, and spends the night wandering – in what must be a nod to Richard Dreyfuss and Candy Clark in Grafitti – from sleepover to sleepover trying to find her.  Claudia (Amanda Bauer) attends an acquaintance’s slumber party, discovers her boyfriend’s past indiscretions with the host, and decides to quietly take revenge.  Scott (Brett Jacobsen) is the oldest of the bunch, having returned home for the summer after his first year of college.  He was dumped by his girlfriend and is not sure if he wants to go back.  He decides to seek out a pair of recently graduated identical twin sisters (Nikita and Jade Ramsey) when he finds out that one of them may have had a crush on him.  All of that might make it seem like a busy film bursting with plot and incident, but the execution is so low-key that it never feels overstuffed, and it rarely feels as though it’s building towards anything.  It is a film that is, to use a critic’s cliché, “observant”.

That low-key aesthetic actually throws up some difficulties early on.  There is a shot early on of two girls riding their bikes at dusk that is very pretty, but the choice of a standard indie song (Beruit’s “Elephant Gun” in this case) makes it feel gratingly affected.  In fact, Mitchell’s small stylistic flourishes throughout the film, from a slow-motion shot of girls with sleeping bags entering a house to the numerous close-ups of hands almost touching, come across as clunky and unnecessary.  Despite all this, I found my early cynicism falling away due to the performances (especially Sloma) and the intelligent way the stories unfolded.  Scott’s story is perhaps the most clichéd, involving as it does the oft-recycled graduate-can’t-move-on-from-high-school character seeking out a missed opportunity (or possibly two), but I was surprised at how humanely it developed.  There is an acknowledgment that his quest is both pathetic and creepy, but instead of going for easy laughs at his expense, the twins – and the film – treat him with a kind of unstated sympathy.

The film looks stunning throughout thanks to James Laxton’s cinematography (note in particular the foreboding look of the abandoned factory-turned-make out spot).  Likewise the choice of locations and the sets are so identifiably banal that they might be the most accurate depiction of middle-income suburban America this side of Friday Night Lights.  Mitchell does a good job of coaxing natural performances from a bunch of first-timers, though apparently walking without being self-conscious about the fact that you are being filmed walking seems to be a problem for some.  And aside from the earlier complaints about clunky flourishes, he’s got a solid visual sense.  I especially liked his juxtaposition of the high school slumber parties, with their messy sprawl of sleeping bags, pillows, and social activity, and the college-sponsored freshman slumber-party Scott crashes, which is several hundred girls being completely silent on the floor of a large gymnasium.  It’s as though any attempt to recreate the experiences of a younger age is doomed to cold, forced failure.  This scene also features the only adult in the film I can remember, and tellingly, she is asleep.

As the film gracefully ambles toward its conclusion, I realized that Mitchell might not be going for realism after all.  For one thing, there’s barely a mobile phone in sight, and social networking doesn’t seem to exist in this universe.  Still, it is an honest, intelligent, sweet and humane portrait of youth.  Its aesthetic is decidedly anti-Hollywood, but its sentiment –and sentimentality – isn’t.  Perhaps the “myth” of the title wasn’t referring to a lie that should be debunked, but a romantic tradition that is grounded in emotional truth, and one that this film aims to continue.

-M

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