It’s to writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s credit that he takes the concerns of his teenage characters seriously in his debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover. Anyone for whom high school is in the rearview mirror will likely recognize many of the preoccupations — the politics of slumber party invitations or the all-consuming crush on an absolute stranger — as ultimately inconsequential, but that doesn’t mean they seem that way at the time.
Mitchell imbues his film with a wistful, even elegiac tone as summer winds down and an extensive cast of characters navigates one night of parties and sleepovers in suburban Detroit. Maggie (Claire Sloma) is an incoming high schooler who’s also coming in to her own sexuality and pursuing older guys, Rob (Marlon Morton) is an introspective kid who falls hard for a blonde girl he spies at the grocery store, Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is trying to fit in at a sleepover surrounded by near-strangers and Scott (Brett Jacobsen) is a college dropout despairing over a missed high school opportunity with twins Ady and Anna (Nikita and Jade Ramsey).
Mitchell’s film is full of keenly observed small details that look to add up to a kind of unforced naturalism. Admirably, he doesn’t rely on tired teenage tropes or shoot for some kind of declaration of interconnectedness. Everything is defiantly small-scale.
It’s too bad he’s often let down by many of his actors, most of whom are newcomers. Any sense of naturalism is lost during many of the line readings, which feel like just that. Too many in the cast evoke the wrong kind of awkwardness thanks to a pervasive feeling of self-consciousness that hangs over many scenes.
One might attribute that to Mitchell’s script, but he’s actually recreated the dialogue of adolescents quite adeptly. For the most part, these characters talk like teenagers might talk, but there’s a stiffness that eliminates the illusion that this is how teenagers act.
This criticism doesn’t apply across the board — Sloma has the screen presence of an ingénue in the making as a girl totally aware of her own sexual attractiveness, but not yet totally in control of it. Morton is gifted at communicating a world of swirling emotions under a mostly stoic exterior.
It’s not all that pleasant to come down hard on American Sleepover, which feels truer than most films that prominently feature teenage concerns. It’s smartly paced, has an attractive desaturated look and portends plenty of potential for Mitchell’s career. It’s a film that certainly requires a cast of unknowns to make it work; I just wish a few more of them didn’t act like a camera had been shoved in their face for the first time.
The Myth of the American Sleepover is now playing in select cities and is available for viewing on-demand from some cable providers.