Thursday, 20 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Myth of the American Sleepover

Forgive me if I become a complete and utter girl for the next few minutes, but one of the best parts about being a teenager - and I am squarely in the 'being an adult is better' camp to be clear - were the sleepovers. Not just because it was a time when you could wear comfy pyjamas, eat junk food, gossip and watch horror films (or just The X Files) but for the magic that comes with it. If you're a teenage girl then you've been brought up on the romantic notion of sleepovers in books, TV and film from the age of about 6 - there's just something unsurpassably giddy about not having to say goodbye to your friends and leave at some point during the evening, and having the whole night stretched out ahead of you to be with your favourite people at your most content. The idea of staying up past a certain time was also thrilling in itself, and there was a real sense of achievement if you could make it through until morning without a wink. So as a hark back to those lost nostalgic days of youth, this weekend I watched two sleepover films: vastly different in tone, and though this isn't strictly a comparison piece there was no way better than to laud the sublimely better and all round treat that was The Myth of the American Sleepover.

What's instantly likable about David Robert Mitchell's film is that the word sleepover with its connotations of the above - girly chit chat, painting toe nails and playing Truth or Dare, is turned on its head as his representation is about dispelling those forged perceptions - this is The Myth of the American Sleepover. It is the complete antithesis of the other film I watched this weekend which is the epitome of those ideas - and markedly called Sleepover! Four girls dress up in older clothes, dance around to the Spice Girls, paint their nails, order pizza and look at social websites. It's plastic and silly, incredibly contrived, and is the kind of film you'd watch as a pre-high schooler and be completely obsessed with. But you shouldn't be watching it in your mid 20s - slap on my wrist.

But here is a film you can watch 10 years after you leave your tie and blazer behind, and utterly adore it for its juvenessence. The Myth of the American Sleepover is set in the suburbs of Detroit on the last Summer weekend before the new school term begins. Primarily following four teenagers on this everlasting night, the story lines weave in and out of each other as beautifully as the characters dance around one another, searching for their "one". Pool girl Maggie is desperate for one last flourish of the holiday and is attracted to older, pool guy Steven and snubs the main sleepover for a party to find him, dragging best mate Beth along; Scott is on Summer break before his last year at College but doesn't want to go back, instead seeking out the Abbey twins whom he fantasised over when he was younger; Rob sees a girl in a supermarket and becomes infatuated with seeing her again, trailing around the whole night looking in every possible spot for her; new girl Claudia is invited to popular girl Janelle's sleepover, but instead of making friends asserts herself when she reads her host's diary and finds some unwelcome secrets.

This film doesn't meet the expectations of a conventional sleepover - characters drift in and out of the house, they go to parties, 'make out' tunnels, gardens, boats on lakes, College gymnasiums - it evokes that feeling of dreamy sentimentality with a purity that is both so languid and adroit it's dazzling. Each story feels like a memory of your own - and though Mitchell has said none of the film was based on his own experiences, it doesn't feel fictitious or most depressingly theatrical: it's your own adolescence. The setting and the characters may feel slightly alien, but the emotions and observations will hit the deja vu button in an instant.

But it's not the icky, uncomfortable reminiscing of teenage life you get with this - it's far too sensuous and serene for that. It's full of moments that will make you remember your innocence, as much as moments where you'll be full of wonder and amazement at these free spirited teens: Rob watching the girl of his dreams smell and pick a new shampoo in the supermarket, he goes straight over to the shelf to smell the bottle too; a boy telling his best friend how he casually made out with this girl, as she simultaneously tells her friends that they sat on the sofa and watched cartoons; dialogue such as "Can I kiss you?" betraying the emotional vulnerability of a sudden intimate situation. I think my favourite moment of the whole film though was following new girl Claudia (the striking Amanda Bauer) as she nips to the loo at Janelle's sleepover, only to be enticed by being in the girl's bedroom and coming across her diary. Upon finding it, she reads the last entry and finds out her boyfriend and Janelle have been flirting - instead of putting the diary away and taking this information with her, she gets out a pen and writes "SLUT!" underneath Janelle's own words. It was amazing! I love when characters surprise you on screen - up until then Claudia had been relatively quiet and passive, and this revealed a whole new side of her, leading to further events (which I won't spoil here) which made her the pivotal character for me. Whilst the other three story lines centre on a burgeoning romance, Claudia is fiercely independent and impulsive, making her by far the most interesting to watch.

But the other stories were fascinating too - there was no weak link here. Each featured a unique take on grappling with your feelings at such a young age: Maggie is slightly rebellious and finds herself attracted to the older guy, but yet can't stop herself from kissing someone else at the same time. The especially cute moment on the water slide towards the end where Steven does want to kiss her and she says no because she "doesn't want to rush" shows where her true feelings lie. It puts paid to the adage: if you're serious about someone then you don't joke about it with your friends. Scott has lost his way, at college and dumped by his long term girlfriend, and in seeking out the twins from his school days he is trying to find his way back to this limbo between adolescence and adulthood, where everything is still full of promise. Scott is heading backwards just as Rob is moving forward, after discovering the girl of his dreams from the supermarket is the type of girl who hangs out in the make-out tunnels with different guys phone numbers scribbled on her arm, he finally connects with his sister's best friend who is staying at his house and they share a first kiss under the stars. It's cute and perfect, amplified by witty interchanges of dialogue - "I knew you could tell, that's why I told you" and the clever reversal of expectation: throughout the film Rob and the supermarket girl always miss each other by fractions of a second, so surely they are meant to be together - but it is just a dream, and the reality is actually the familiar. This film plays heavily on the idea of intuition and knowing who you are meant to be with - it may be a little fantastical, but it harks back to what I said earlier about the characters dancing around one another and like magnets they are drawn to their partners. The non-professional cast are just standouts.

The hilarious Sleepover you don't want an invite to

Myth's natural approach just makes the gauche Sleepover all the more loud and clumsy, seeping over into creepy mode when the main girl (Julie)'s crush is revealed to be hiding in her tree house at the end and they finally share that scene ending kiss. The crush, who's really cool and would never have noticed a girl like her until suddenly he does and they end up together like a fairytale. Except it's too ridiculous to be a fairytale, and is an infuriating caper of coincidences, TV movie by the numbers at best, but to its credit has hilarious pre-fame appearances from Evan Peters (American Horror Story) as a goofy skateboarder, Sara Paxton (The Innkeepers) as the bitchy-but-not-so-different-from-the-uncool-girls teen, and Jane Lynch (Glee) as the over-protective mother who won't let her 'baby' grow up. There was one half decent line about a bridge between ladybugs and boys, and "I'm still standing on that bridge" but overall it felt as annoying as you'd find a teenager today, which makes it even easier to revel in the gentle subtlety of David Robert Mitchell's film.

Whereas Sleepover also felt instantly dated on its eight years, Myth feels timeless, with the director choosing to omit mobile phones, computers, pop culture references and modern music from the film. It feels now, and relevant, but you couldn't place that time. The shooting on a DSLR (I believe) camera as well gives it that retro look that's trendy, meaning it captures that 'anytime' feel perfectly. It had the soupy feel of Stay The Same Never Change, but the captivation of West of Pluto - two indie teen dramas I've seen recently, and it reminded me a lot of the 2008 documentary American Teen in many ways too - it's clear to see why this has been a big festival hit.

Bittersweet and mellifluous, The Myth of the American Sleepover will charm you into a daze of a childhood you once had, or at least touched on at one time. It has one thing in common with Joe Nussbaum's Sleepover - they're not about midnight feasting, secret swapping slumber parties. But here's where they finally stand at the end: one is beautiful and essential viewing.

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