The Myth of the American Sleepover is a teen indie epic. Epic in the sense of the title, which it lives up to, despite being a small film. After a shaky beginning – perhaps because the film was shot in story order and the young, unknown cast needed time to gel – it becomes an ensemble portrait of one wild summer night in a Michigan city that could stand for any summer night in any American city in the past three decades.
The film is as evocative of American teenhood as American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused but not quite so injected with unwarranted nostalgia. It’s neither trying to glamorize teenhood nor tarnish it, even as it presents the story as emblematic. The cast, almost all local, inexperienced actors, give offhand, uninflected line reads. In a talkback after the screening I attended, writer/director David Robert Mitchell said that the teens brought their own selves to the characters. It shows. While the film has more than a dozen central characters, each one of them stands out distinctly.
A great deal happens in the film, and a few things that you will expect to happen don’t. As one character poignantly says, “It doesn’t all have to happen in one night.” I love it. It’s the exact opposite message of every marketing campaign, ever. The film is smart enough to recognize that these characters can’t escape adulthood forever, which lends a wistfulness to the tone. Maybe they can’t escape forever, but tonight they’re still partially kids.
The film’s message, if it has one, is that teens try to jump into adulthood too quickly. Only an adult realizes that the simple joys of childhood are not a fair trade for the burdens of adulthood. That, and don’t ask identical twins to be in a threesome.
Shot on RED in 28 days on location in Michigan. It has a desaturated, low-contrast look that didn’t do much for me, although it may have been a result of using more practical lighting setups, which I think did help lend the film a sense of realism. The art direction of the film is also subtle. It is intentionally period-ambiguous, lacking brands or conspicuous technology from the last decade, the work of a hawk-like Jeanine Nicholas, the production designer who made it her mission to confiscate cell phones.
I saw the film at the Nuart theater here in Los Angeles. The theater’s representative made heart-felt plea for people to tell their friends to see the film in theaters, not wait for DVD or On Demand viewing. If you have a chance, I certainly do recommend seeing this film in a good theater. But I reject the theory that making it known the film will be available in other formats is harmful. People who want to see movies in theaters will see them in theaters. Netflix streaming isn’t going to change that.
The film was already held-over an extra week in its New York run, so perhaps the plea is unnecessary. While you will be hearing a lot about Beginners as the indie sleeper hit of the summer, this is a more authentic example. It manages to be unique and familiar at the same time, and without star actors, or cloying quirkiness. Sorry, Ewan McGregor-with-an-American-accent, but I’m putting The Myth of the American Sleepover in my pantheon.