Claire Sloma (left) and Annette DeNoyer are teenagers yearning for something more in The Myth Of The American Sleepover, a film that yearns to be something more, as well.
Last summer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while surfing the web in the newsroom of The Michigan Daily, I discovered the existence of a little independent film called The Myth Of The American Sleepover. And it burned into my brain.
Besides that amazing title (if one that sounds like it belongs on ABC Family), there was so much about Sleepover that made it seem tailored to become My Movie, the one I could treasure for decades on late-night TV and through friends I would incessantly beg to watch the thing with me just one more time. It's an art movie — with a capital A — written and directed by a guy who, like me, is a metro Detroiter born and raised on classic films. It was filmed and set in the suburbs of southeast Michigan, including a stopover on my college campus. It stars a University of Michigan student (Claire Sloma). It was invited to Cannes. But most importantly, it's all about teenagers who meander through a lost summer night, searching for glimpses of an adulthood poised to engulf them all too quickly.
If there was ever a film with promises of such a telepathic link to me and the people I grew up with, this was it. I could have the hyperkinetic Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World karate-chopping through my video-gamer fever dreams, and this one rolling out its sleeping bag on the cozy bed of my actual memories. The most valuable works of art are the ones you can personally connect to. I thought I was about to become very wealthy indeed.
But I'd have to wait another long year before I could watch Sleepover for myself. In that year, IFC inked a distribution deal that would give writer-director David Robert Mitchell's film a rollout plan: New York this weekend, Los Angeles the next and the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, Mich. the week after. And wouldn't you know it: That's the theater of my teenage years, perfectly located across the street from the 24-hour Leo's Coney Island, final destination for only the finest American sleepovers. Where else are you going to get saganaki at 3:00 AM?
Things change over the years, though. Memories cloud; people and places shift over time; and like one of the characters in Sleepover, you can come home after years away to find that the Earth has rotated a notch more than you expected. Now the Main Art Theatre lives in the shadow of a gigantic multiplex with D-BOX seats. And now that I've finally seen this mythical movie, I find myself distressingly underwhelmed.
Like the classic teen flicks it emulates, Sleepover follows the interconnected paths of several young protagonists trying to find love or some degree of happiness. Maggie (Sloma), a punkish freshman, guns for the attentions of older gentlemen at an excursion by the lake. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is the new kid in town invited to the popular girl's sleepover, to the chagrin of her boyfriend. And in a rather overt lift from the king of one-magic-night movies, American Graffiti, Rob (Marlon Morton) glimpses an attractive girl in a supermarket and spends the rest of the night trying to track her down.
There's a fourth plotline, too, easily the strangest and most beguiling. Scott (Brett Jacobsen), the out-of-state college boy several years removed from his hometown glory days, tracks down twin freshman girls who were at one time infatuated with him, so he can do... what? He isn't exactly sure, and neither are they. He seems more in love with the idea that he can keep clinging to elements of his past. One of the movie's best scenes has him wander aimlessly through the halls of his old high school, towering over the hall lockers, peering into a glass case of photos from a bygone school production. Either he got bigger, or the school's mystique shrunk.
But the film's rearview-mirror ideal is at odds with Mitchell's sometimes perplexing authorial choices. His characters don't talk like any teenagers I know; their dialogue is free of slang and affectations. They don't raise their voices much at all, and in fact they're often spookily quiet, as in a scene where a roomful of silent 14-year old boys watch a porno.
Mitchell's attempt to free his characters from time and place instead saddles them with an unfortunate blandness — few of them are given the opportunity to develop personalities or even quirks. I wish he had seen fit to embrace an era — any era — just a little bit more; nostalgia thrives on specific details, after all. If we are meant to see Sleepover's bleary-eyed, humorless monotone as a direct response to the exaggerated color and stylings of Graffiti, Dazed And Confused and Sixteen Candles (which I, and I'm sure my fellow students, would watch while trying to pretend our own lives were similarly exciting), then it works a little better as a cultural document, not so well as a film. My high school wasn't full of drag racers and acerbic redheads, but I'd like to believe the myth that it was.
What can I do about a movie like this when it doesn't live up to my expectations? After all, it's about coming to terms with expectations. The characters are chasing either romanticized memories or idealized notions, not actual goals. Even the guys out of high school can't sever their ties to that time in their lives, a time that looks a lot better to them in retrospect than it actually was. No one finds exactly what he's looking for. And there is something deeply moving and sad about that.
(Also, between this and the legendary TV show Freaks And Geeks, suburban Detroit already has more coming-of-age tales in popular culture than most regions of America. And that's certainly something I can be proud of.)
So with that in mind, I will embrace the spirit of Sleepover and retroactively temper my own expectations. It wasn't ever going to be exactly what I was looking for. The film's imperfections, in a way, almost make it more endearing: Like high school, it's messy, awkward and full of people you don't want to spend a lot of time with. Mitchell is undeniably talented, and there are boatloads more heart and soul here than in any mainstream teen movie. Maybe that should be enough. Maybe, if I had watched this at a sleepover years ago, it would have been.