There’s a weird moment in some adolescent boys’ lives in which they don’t know whether they’d rather watch Cinemax or teepee a house. It’s a period that lasts about six months but it feels like a whole other lifetime to live through. For in life, there exists both a very specific twilight between being a child and being an adolescent, and then another between and adolescent and adult. David Robert Mitchell’s debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, realizes both simultaneously. Set in a suburban world where adults are heard but almost never seen, the film moves through a 24 hour period in the lives of several teens as they navigate a night of discovery, adventure, and wonder. Like American Graffiti, it has an elusive blonde who is the unobtainable end to a noble, nocturnal quest by a lovelorn romantic boy. Like Dazed and Confused, it celebrates the fluidity of cliques and the elasticity of youth. But instead of setting the tale in the expanse of a town where having a set of wheels is required to play along, The Myth of the American Sleepover shrinks it all down to the less-than-perfect suburban neighborhoods with aluminum filigree and poorly patched streets where everything in one’s world is within walking distance. It’s a film that looks divorced from actual time as it both completely modern but without any amenities to cement it in any one specific era. Of course, this is the point as The Myth of the American Sleepover aims to show just how very little changes no matter how many generations of young people one will see cycle through that same period.
Admittedly, perhaps my coming out of the other side of a spirit crushing, seventeen-year, white collar day job hasn’t caused me to regain the passionate grip on life that teenagers naturally have, but it has put things in a certain kind of perspective to understand that memory is precious, experience is beauty, and, in the words of Michael Mann, time is luck. Even when I can see the age of 50 on the horizon, absolutely nothing about this film feels foreign though it’s definitely pitched to an audience that is about a third of my age. And, in fact, there was a time in which I did not have faith in what the director was doing, thinking he brought little to the subgenre of coming-of-age films and overly inflating the importance of the rituals that kind of film celebrates. Now I see that he brought something very specific to the genre; a timeless and almost spiritual testament to the two most pivotal times in one’s life that, unfortunately, aren’t spaced too far apart from each other. No, it’s not saying anything new. But it’s also not wrapping its nostalgia in something larger than it needs to be. As life goes on, we’re saddled with many woes both self-inflicted or accidental. Indulging in entertainment to draw a heavy allegory is likely not most people’s idea of a good time at the movies. In part, I agree. So here’s one that captures the best part of your youth, now likely sundowning in the better part of your memory. And as the weeks on the downslope become quicker-paced in my own life, this film has incrementally revealed itself as a truly beautiful and life-affirming thing.
The Myth of the American Sleepover covers the spectrum of incoming freshman to the high school graduate floundering in his first year of college, but they’re used in a much more pointed way than in other coming-of-age films of its kind. This is a movie where the value is broken down into millions of pennies instead of banking on big money moments that are quote-ready and riotous. For this is a movie that remembers how fast you could put out a cigarette when you heard your parents roll up. It remembers how much an object as insignificant as a lighter could possess endless possibilities of meaning. It identifies the exact moment where you could sneak a quick kiss on the cheek and then giggle down the street about it with your friend. It recalls the pain of a breakup that would make you do a silly thing like take literally a “call me sometime” message in your senior yearbook after a couple of beers and go on a nocturnal quest for romantic companionship. It remembers how magical the smell of a crush’s shampoo could be. It remembers what it is to be of an age when a whole other epic sleepover was but two streets over. It remembers what it was to fuck with an Ouija board and think you were really getting away from something. It knows what a hazy, overcast “morning after” feels like and, better yet, dares to dream about the break in the clouds and the tomorrows to come. And, above everything else, it knows the crush of exhaustion that occurs after such a monumental and life-shifting evening. This is a rare film that wants to celebrate in all of the joy of youth even if it wants to gloss over those moments where memory might reveal a low time that you would certainly avoid or do over if given the chance to repeat it.
Maybe this feels like a G-rated Kids but that’s quite ok with me. Where sex is generally the ultimate goal of any post-pubescent creature, that doesn’t mean that every encounter and house party is like Fellini Satyricon with a Bugsy Malone cast. Near the beginning, there is a sweet and knowing juxtaposition between a freshman’s story of what happened with a girl and her story with what really happened between the two of them that puts the filmmaker squarely in the corner of both camps insofar as understanding how boys and girls function within their respective social cliques. But it flips convention a bit by not only showing the boy as having done much less than what he claims, it simultaneously shows that girls are likely quicker at sexually maturing than are boys. This is revealed again in a moment between the same freshman and his friend’s older sister who beckons him away from his buddies who are situated in the living room and into the bathroom. It’s a scene charged with some light sexual tension that she quickly gets defused by her as she senses just how out of his depth he is and, regardless of his pursuit, he wouldn’t know what to do with her if he caught her. “Can I kiss you?” he asks her after she’s pretty much thrown herself at him without explicitly articulating it and he’s missed every signal pitched in his direction. It’s a Mrs. Robinson moment he’s not ready for which again shows this as a universe not governed by adults but by kids who have to feel their way around life.
Sometimes, the dialogue given to the kids is a little pointed. Either my memory is faulty or there were high school juniors who would have rather waxed poetically about the good old days of playing a board game when they were carefree and younger instead of trying to make out with the girl who was obviously interested in them and sitting mere inches away. I mean, I just don’t recall that being how it went down in Del City, Oklahoma, but I do recognize it as a kind of creative license that, in pressing a point already made by the sheer mood of the film, it hits a rare false note. From a performance standpoint, the kids are something of a mixed bag but, on the other hand, I also think that is what lends to the film’s authenticity and the natural ease and sometimes awkwardness of the young cast never falls into distracting mediocrity.
More than just remembering, The Myth of the American Sleepover is a film that actually understands its characters, what happens to them, and how it affects them. It understands how you can end up in a car with strangers even though it’s a roll of the dice as to whether or not it’s a good idea to do so. It understands how the second banana can come along and, instead of being a third wheel or a stick in the mud, can find their own adventurous path. It understands how a letter revealing that the girl with whom you’re in love on only wants to be friends can create the mythical “Girlfriend in Canada” situation. It understands sneaking into the basement with an illicit crush even knowing it’s going to start static in the other room with his girlfriend. It understands the awkwardness of not knowing how you feel about your readiness to go to first base. It may even understand, in an opaque way, how confusing this might be for those not yet sure or comfortable with their sexuality. It understands a closed universe of benign fuck ups where forgiveness is much easier obtained than in one’s later years. It understands the fine line between creepy and sincere. It’s a film that understands, in the words of the tune from Streets of Fire, that tonight is what it means to be young and, doubling down on that, also poignantly and purposefully misunderstands that one will never run out of tonights. The Myth of the American Sleepover is, in a nutshell, Jim Steinman by way of Whit Stillman and an absolute treasure to behold.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain