A rumination on the alternately torturous and joyous paradoxes of teenagehood, David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover likeably recognizes (aside for one garishly mishandled conversation from which the title is lifted) that all of the adolescent epiphanies worth rendering in film must be represented non-verbally. The script follows an extended circle of Midwestern high school chums through one night of sleepovers and parties at summer’s end with the free indirect discourse of Richard Linklater’s early work, finally deciding on four gender-balanced individuals as protagonists, of sorts. Throughout this American Graffiti-like Circadian shuffle, we can sense these characters coming to grips with human realities that they dare not vocalize.
This also means that the cast often appears precociously taciturn, much like the Cracker Jack pubescents in John Updike’s short stories. (Most of my high school friends and I would unleash our loquaciousness on anyone who wouldn’t walk away during conversation; listening or contributing meaningfully to our solipsist narratives wasn’t even a requisite for “engagement.”) But Mitchell’s impressionistic approach to the vagaries of youth also avoids the typically obligatory and endless barrage of forced colloquialisms, instead offering the early-‘90s milieu a soft timelessness, and informing dialogue that subtly reveals the landscape’s hormonal machinations. In one early scene, a girl presents a lighter from her otherwise empty pockets and hands it to boy so he can light a citronella candle. “Do you smoke?” he asks, puzzled. “No,” she replies. “But I usta like a guy that smokes.” At another point, a girl bashfully asks a boy if he ever thought about somebody so much that he was pretty sure the person could tell that they were being thought about. The boy’s head tilts, bird-like. “When I was a kid, maybe.”
The exchanges above and the various plots that are teased out are less concerned with limning a “coming of age” than they are exercises in the poetics of inchoate desire; the fact that this is the Last Day of Summer doesn’t necessarily mean that it represents a hard stop to the giddiness and emotional irresponsibility of the teens’ childhood selves. Mitchell even includes a character that’s already left this small town and attended college for a few years; nursing the sting of a recent breakup and considering a drop-out, the shaggy-haired and utterly confused Scott (Brett Jacobsen) drives several hours into the night to visit a pair of twins two years or so his junior who he vaguely connected with during his final year of high school. By contrast, the idealism of the lanky, awkwardly horny Rob (Marlon Morton), who spies the blonde of his dreams huffing shampoo at a drugstore and spends the rest of the film hunting for her, seems conservative. The female-oriented stories are more sexually nebulous, but more socially potent: the skinny, pig-tailed Claudia (Amanda Bauer) gets invited to a popular bitch’s sleepover, then stumbles into evidence that the host has been sleeping with her boyfriend; the pierced lip, cropped-haired blondie Maggie (Claire Sloma) courts an older boy with whom she shared a brief encounter at a pool, eventually revealing to him her hidden talents and self-defeating impulsiveness.
The writing can be faulted for lapsing into unnecessary neatness toward the denouement; there’s an unsettling tidiness to the realizations each subplot collides with, and the feeling that we’ve been strung along, albeit with patient lyricism, only to be handed rather garden-variety truths. (For example, it sure does suck to be cheated on, doesn’t it? And it sure does suck when the girl of your dreams turns out to be kind of a whore, doesn’t it?) This flaw becomes emblematic in the conversation that yields the title, when Maggie’s semi-beau bemoans the “myth of being a teenager” and the manner in which a hyper-generalized idea of “adventure” becomes an opiate to distract from what are the most befuddlingly shitty years of one’s life up to that point. That this character also turns out to be among the most forgiving in the group of teens produces a sour aftertaste; we can’t help but parse this curly haired, compassionate, dime-store philosopher as the director’s mouthpiece.
And for all the concrete complaining in that single scene about the crappiness of growing up, there’s a surprising dearth of genuine outcasts that might define the film’s community more clearly—no fatties, no nerds, no odd, homely faces that haven’t quite grown into themselves yet. There’s a slight diversity of body types (Maggie has an adorable bit of paunch, Rob’s companion is a beanpole), but we can conceive of everyone on screen having some kind of sex life without too much effort. This bodily monotony is underscored by the seeming epidemic of pensive calmness that the entire population of the tiny town seems to have agreed upon as a coping mechanism for angst.
But Mitchell thankfully knows that his story’s strengths are in a handful of small, transformative moments rather than in any grandiose personal discoveries, and, quite eerily, he trains the form of his film to match the tone and cadence of his characters’ experience and perspective. After Scott arrives at a college in Ann Arbor with the hopes of recapturing the attention of his twin loves, the three of them make a Godardian dash through a college campus with endearing jump cuts. There’s also a languidly paced scene where Rob converses with his friend’s older sister while she bathes herself; their loaded speech, teetering nervously on the edge of passion, suggests, too, that one might find their “ideal” woman in just about any woman.
Similarly, when Maggie sets a boom box to a jazz station and hurls herself into a show-stopping routine calibrated to attract the attention of her more mature interest, the camera internalizes her simultaneous self-empowerment and fear; at times the angles seem to be rhythmically at one with her legs, but they just as often appear dumbfounded, unsure of what they should be fixed upon. This Joycean fusion of composition and consciousness is so happily redolent of the egocentricism of adolescence that it excuses the film’s clunky third act and hackneyed, sun-bleached color palette. So while The Myth of the American Sleepover is occasionally—though some would say purposefully—misrepresentative of its subject matter, it’s more powerfully an agreeable reminder that real-life social maturation is pocked with as many gawky clichés as it is moments of nuance.