‘Myth of the American Sleepover’ slyly avoids teen-movie pitfalls
Making a movie about teenagers is asking for trouble. Your movie begs to be pigeonholed – will it be a gritty cautionary tale about youthful excess? A raunchy sex farce? An obsessively quirky, mannered dramedy? For its shortcomings, David Robert Mitchell’s freshman outing as a feature writer/director nimbly (and thankfully) avoids easy pigeonholing.
Sleepover chronicles roughly 24 hours in the lives of a mostly-disconnected group of young people (mostly high schoolers) as they attempt to navigate their own budding senses of romance and attraction on what appears to be the last party night before school begins again. Among the youngest is Maggie (Claire Sloma), a formerly shy but potentially outgoing girl eager to make the most of her evening. Meanwhile, Rob (Marlon Morton) spies a prototypical blonde beauty at the grocery store, and snakes his way in and out of the evening’s various festivities in search of her, Elsewhere, Claudia (Amanda Bauer) tests the limits of teenhood fidelity at one of the film’s two, yes, sleepovers. Finally, recent university dropout Scott (Brett Jacobsen) heads back home with his tail between his legs after getting dumped, and impulsively decides to reunite with a set of twins he went to high school with and nursed a crush on (played by real-life twins Nikita and Jade Ramsey).
If the above paragraph sounds like the premise for a wacky, formulaic coming-of-age saga (or a gross Apatovian romp), Mitchell manages to mine this very familiar territory for fresh pathos and easygoing charm. Unlike the “adorably” (irritatingly, really) quirky youngsters who tend to populate movies about teens, Sleepover‘s wandering souls look, speak and behave like real people – without lapsing into boring self-seriousness, either, which is a tricky balance. Their sense of appropriately hazy aimlessness is aided by James Laxton’s gorgeous cinematography, which frequently strands Mitchell’s characters in darkness (the lake at night, the “make-out maze”), emphasizing the paradoxically suffocating openness of their young lives.
In fact, Mitchell and his crew do such a great job of communicating the ambling nature of youth that it’s a little disappointing when it becomes clear that, almost schematically, each character will be granted a tidy arc and resolution. What initially seems like carefully simulated disorientation (somewhat akin to early Linklater, albeit considerably more innocent) actually turns out to have a clear set of destinations. Granted, these resolutions aren’t as pat or unbelievable as those of most of Sleepover‘s Sundance brethren – there are no shocking revelations, no canned twists, no cautionary tales – but it’s still slightly deflating to see the likeable, appropriately inebriated formlessness fall away to some degree.
Still, Mitchell’s accomplished first feature is not only an assured and original debut, but in a perfect world would serve as a new blueprint for movies about young people, a new and better way to broach the subject. Free of forced quirk, forced raunch, or stylistic excess, Sleepover proves that sometimes just keeping it real is enough.