There seems to be a collective consciousness when it comes to American teenagers. They’re individuals, no question, and yet they all more or less share the same experiences and are faced with the same issues. The beautiful thing about The Myth of the American Sleepover is that, although writer/director David Robert Mitchell drew from his Michigan upbringing, it will resonate no matter what part of the country you’re from. For many adults, the film will tap directly into long-dormant memories. For many teens, watching it will be like looking into a mirror. It’s the story of people in the process of self-discovery, of wanting to belong and living in the moment, of the belief that all the answers are there when in fact they’re nowhere to be found. By the end, it’s clear that everyone involved has learned something valuable about who they are and what they want.
Constructed as intercut narratives, much of the action takes place over the course of one day and one night in suburban Detroit, when several teenagers celebrate the final days of summer by going to parties and having sleepovers. In this time of transition, we will see a number of behaviors and events that are all too familiar. We will also meet a number of characters who are very relatable. There’s Maggie (Claire Sloma), a dancer for her school’s marching group whose short hair makes her look almost pixie-like. She doesn’t quite register on the popularity radar due to her young age, but she’s outgoing and anxious to do what a lot of the older kids do. She already drinks and smokes – now she has eyes for the local poolboy, Steven (Doug Diedrich), a decent guy who believes that being a teen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Through him, Maggie begins to realize that she shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to grow up.
The sleepovers are, understandably, separated by gender – until such time when someone wants to infiltrate someone else’s house for their own self-indulgent reasons. At the girls’ sleepover, we find Claudia (Amanda Bauer). She’s new to the area and was invited at the last minute by the popular girl, who already has a boyfriend but seems to know more about Claudia’s than she cares to admit. Their competitiveness is subtle, but certainly present. At a certain point, Claudia will not only discover the vindictiveness of other girls, but also the vindictiveness within herself. If you’re an adult, you will watch Claudia and in all likelihood consider her problems trivial. But that’s the interesting thing about teenagers: At that age, when it’s all about you, you’re libel to blow certain situations way out of proportion. The truth is, there really is no such thing as love during that life phase. Lust, certainly – hormones rage uncontrollably.
At the girls’ sleepover, we see more socializing, groups of two or three having their own conversations about boys or hair or clothing. We even see game play, as evidenced by the appearance of the ever-reliable Ouija board. Compare this to the boys’ sleepover; they all huddle in the living room, alternating their attention between watching a teen slasher film and flipping through the pages of a pinup magazine. They don’t converse, except to laugh at the kid who keeps rewinding the video to a shot of bare breasts. One of the boys will excuse himself to the bathroom and lock the door. It’s a different world altogether. Here, we find Rob (Marlon Morton), who earlier that day spotted a beautiful blonde at the grocery store. Ever since then, he has been relentlessly one-tracked in his efforts to find her. Sex so thoroughly occupies his thoughts that he misses what’s right in front of him. He’s often seen with his friend, Marcus (Wyatt McCallum), who seems rather indifferent about girls.
The final major subplot involves a college junior named Scott (Brett Jacobsen), who returns home as an escape from a bad relationship. He remembers with longing his high school days in the drama club, where he could spend time with identical twins Ady and Anna (Nikita and Jade Ramsey). They never had a relationship per se, although he clearly liked being with them. He is, in fact, so taken with the memory of them that he’s willing to drive all the way to Ann Arbor, where they’ve just entered college. Although competently written and performed, it’s the most contrived and predictable of the film’s subplots. If the other stories are authentic snapshots, this one is a scene from a movie.
But even then, it still evokes a time and place almost all of us were either once familiar with or are currently a part of. Mitchell does not reduce the American teenager to the level of a raunchy punch line; he validates them, allows them to be, studies them with interest rather than condemnation. He evokes a world that still exists, even if aspects of it have faded into obscurity. Does The Myth of the American Sleepover take place in the present? I can’t recall a single instance in which we see a cell phone. In fact, the popular girl writes her phone number on a piece of paper and gives it to Claudia, and Maggie has a boy write a street address on her arm. We even see names and numbers written on the arm of the blonde Rob is seeking. In a film this gentle and quiet, these moments trigger tactile memories that are nothing short of wonderful.
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