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"The Myth of the American Sleepover" is a Timeless Teen Movie for Grown Ups

by Christopher Campbell
July 21, 2011 8:56 AM
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Advertisements for the new romantic comedy "Friends With Benefits" revel in the fact that it's from the director of "Easy A," as if that film is anything of achievement beyond a well-cast and excessively derivative diversion. It is certainly not the notable high school movie it wants to be, mostly because it tries too hard and samples so much. One thing I recall wondering about its relevance, too, is whether teens today actually care that much about fellow classmates' sexual activities. Maybe because it wasn't a big deal when I was in grade school two decades ago; maybe because the media makes it sound like the latest generation of young adults, and now even younger than them, are more casually carnal than ever. There is a similar avoidance of actual activity in David Robert Mitchell's distinctly chaste "The Myth of the American Sleepover." Is this ensemble drama true to the modern teenager? I have no clue, but at least it feels genuine to the young characters it follows over the course of one end-of-summer night.

Following multiple characters through the evening and into early morning, "Myth" demands comparisons to "American Graffiti" and "Dazed and Confused," of course, but this is no era-defining nostalgia piece of the same ilk. As far as I can tell it's not intended to be overtly retro, though I cannot recall a cell phone or computer visible throughout the film. Boys look attentively at porno mags as though the Internet doesn't exist yet, and phone numbers are written in ink onto arms rather than digitally into address book apps. It feels current yet timeless, and that's very likely the intention. The title, as well as one conversation in the film, do point to an idea of general memory and sentimentalization of childhood, particularly the formative ages. We all miss the playgrounds and the slumber parties, regretting what could have been or romanticizing what was, even when we're still in the early years.

All of the intertwining narratives concern edges of maturity and well-defined milestones of getting older, with most characters about to enter high school, some starting college. One guy -- think of him as the Judge Reinhold of this movie -- is even older, and he's about to drop out of the university he attends before senior year because he's been dumped by his high school sweetheart. As if either part of that equation alone doesn't signify arrested development and fear of adulthood, he heads off rather stalkerishly to find a younger girl who may have had a crush on him years ago. Actually, it's two younger girls, twins, because the film's clear concept of young people is that they can't make up their mind about what they want. All of their choices might as well always be two identical sisters. Especially the consistent choices of who to kiss and whether to have a firmer hold on youth or growing up (do we know any better later in life what we should have done then or what to do now?).

There is in "Myth" perhaps too much hesitancy, a kind of falseness in the overabundance of innocence that drives it towards the direction of tween television. Yes, the majority of these characters are quite young, and I don't expect it to have a Larry Clark infusion, but we've seen some of the familiar archetypes too often. There's the boy so prurient yet so shamefully inexperienced he lies to his friends about conquests (enough of a cliche to be parodied ten years ago in "Wet Hot American Summer") and the girl who flirts with literal and figurative maturity only to back down when confusion and uncertainty creeps up like vomit at the end of a night of youthful binge drinking (meanwhile, the actress, Claire Sloma, inadvertently flirts so much with the camera, she better be more prepared for stardom than her character is for teenage boys' requited responses). Still, fortunately nobody is an outright stereotype in Mitchell's mundane Michigan suburbia, which is nothing like George Lucas' "Modesto" or Richard Linklater's Texas or even John Hughes' nearby Chicago suburbs -- possibly because so few characters have a license to cruise around town. They don't fall into definable cliques, yet they don't exhibit very distinct individual traits either. They're hardly real, identifiable people.

Which is to say they're primarily unmemorable because they lack punchy, quotable dialogue and colorful costumes and quirks, and they're given little to do except walk and talk and sit around a pool or lakefront. For this reason I often thought more of Linklater's "Before..." movies than his "Dazed," although even then I'd place "Myth" more in cahoots with Brady Kiernan's wonderful new city-wandering talkfest, "Stuck Between Stations." Sloma, who actually gets in the water a few times and also shows off some dancing skills, is again the most extraordinary of the bunch, but not even she gets an iconic moment of teen movie majesty. For all its indeterminable temporality -- aided by a soundtrack populated with obscure, undatable indie rock, along the lines of decade-bridging antifolk and neo-garage sounds -- the film doesn't have an outright claim to everlasting worth. I don't see the film being a big hit with modern teens or being cemented as this generation's ensemble high school movie of choice (in part because of that cool but not popular music).

That doesn't mean it is no good, just that it is easy to understand some people likening it to Gus Van Sant more than John Hughes. Even there, though, the comparison seems wrong, possibly because of the film's chastity, with regards to sex and its overall mellow mindset -- the teens here do casually drink, smoke, get high, cheat and fight, but nothing's too hard or messy. It's like "Kids" rewritten by Francine Pascal and then directed by Olivier Assayas (as if he were specifically extending the end of "Summer Hours" into a feature). It's more young adult novel than I think of Van Sant's aesthetic to fall under. Still, as much as I'd like to lump it with the delightful "Dear Lemon Lima" as this year's other great original and age-appropriate movie for teens, "Myth" is a film for grown ups. Not because of any adult themes but because it's a kind of reflective myth on teen-dom rather than necessarily a direct reflection of that time.

I think far more than "Easy A," which is obviously written by someone who grew up with '80s teen movies, "Myth" is for those of us raised on Hughes and company prior to high school, who experienced Linklater and Van Sant during our teenage years, got over the "Freaks and Geeks" sort of nostalgia really quick during our early adulthood and are now in the mood for more muted reminders of long ago. That said, I would like to note that the film ends with a song (also heared in the trailer above) by The Magnetic Fields, titled "The Saddest Story Ever Told," which is almost the musical equivalent of "Easy A" in that it blatantly bites off The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me." Which of course flashes me back to the opening of "Adventures in Babysitting." Likely an unintentional effect by Mitchell or whoever picked the song, it's nevertheless unfortunately antithetical to our experience the whole 90 minutes prior. Just turn the film off quickly when you know the parade sequence is winding down and you'll be fine.


"The Myth of the American Sleepover" opens in New York City tomorrow and premieres on IFC Video-on-Demand July 27.

Recommended if You Like: "Dazed and Confused"; "Paranoid Park"; nostalgically reading YA novels.


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