'The Myth of the American Sleepover': Spirited Debut
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
The problem with most films about teens is that they're written by adults, or approved by adults, so there's either talky, phony dialogue all over every moment of the film or a fake, big plot driving it forward. For all of John Hughes' vaunted teen realism and pathos, no real teens ever talked like the members of "The Breakfast Club," and for all of the much-praised gritty, up-from-the-streets realism of Harmony Korine's script for "Kids," it's got as much phony suspense as any ticking-clock thriller.
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So when a film like "The Myth of the American Sleepover" comes along -- with its talent for finding and parsing the words teens leave unsaid; with its flat naturalism unfolding and moving glowingly and seemingly directionless, like fireflies in a nighttime forest -- it tends to draw you in. Directed and written by first-timer David Robert Mitchell, the film follows a night at the end of summer, with a swirl of parties and sleepovers to go to. There's nothing here as big as "American Graffiti," with its young protagonists heading to Vietnam and college in the morning, or as fun as "Dazed and Confused," with its big party at the legendary Moon Tower. And yet.
Mitchell's got a great eye and ear for teen behavior, whether it's Maggie (Claire Sloma) and Beth (Annette DeNoyer) lazing around a pool talking about whether this summer was better or worse than the last or Rob (Marlon Morton) making corner-of-his-eye contact with a blind beauty he's transfixed by. New girl in town Claudia (Amanda Bauer), with an older boyfriend, is plunged into the thick of class struggle with her female classmates and finds out some uncomfortable truths about her boyfriend and herself, while college-age Scott (Brett Jacobsen) breaks out of the gravity of the town's social orbit to travel to a nearby college where he finds twins Ady and Anna (Jade and Nikita Ramsey), after the rumor that one of them -- but not precisely which one -- still has a crush on him has become a maddening mystery.
We don't see a lot of cellphones or parents and grown-ups in "Myth," and the time and place could be anywhere -- when Rob wants to show a picture of the girl he ostensibly lost his virginity to, it's not on a smartphone screen but, instead, in a little View-Master-ish keychain you hold up to the light. There's sex and drugs and indie rock, facial piercings but movies on VHS. We could be in pretty much any time in American history since the invention of television -- or the pill.
The plotline with Scott is the weakest, only because it's the biggest. The other plots don't leave the world of the film's town, and they don't need to. Maggie has a gift for self-expression and self-sabotage, Claudia finds out firsthand how mean girls can be, and from the inside, Rob discovers how -- in one of the film's more indelible scenes of pure emotion driven by wordless cinema -- the mass and might of one's hopes and yearnings can fall under the slightest weight of blue ink seen at the wrong time.
The actors are all fine and are all real teens, not 27-year-olds with zero-percent body fat squeezed into skintight ensembles like a particularly graceless themed costume party. The film is shot in a striking and spacious 2.35:1 widescreen, and the shot-on-digital cinematography noses through the scenes slowly and pauses where it finds something worth looking at. (I have, only half-jokingly, called the film "Nashville 90210" for its mesh of Altman-esque ensemble work and teen-world setting. You could almost draw a flowchart of the characters' relationships and yearnings -- it would be complicated and beautiful -- but you don't need to.) The dialogue's only rarely too blunt and most of the time talks around what it's really talking about. When Janelle invites Claudia and her boyfriend to a party, she asks, "Beer or liquor?" and Claudia doesn't have an answer. Janelle puts it all together and puts Claudia down: "You're dating a senior ... and you don't know if you're a beer or liquor girl?"
Much of "Myth of the American Sleepover" is cliché, but clichés get to be clichés by being real, and what time of life is more real -- more intensely felt, more helplessly powerless -- than your teens? Mitchell gets how teen life is made of rumors and lies and secrets and hopes -- out of myths -- and how, when its stolen moments and sneaked cigarettes are over, it's like waking from a vivid dream. Funny and frank, real and romantic, "Myth" feels like a mix of a poem and a party, as brief and beautiful as the right kind of summer night.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.