See this film: “The Myth of the American Sleepover” (2011)

13 January 2012

Here’s the thing about teen films that I realized after seeing Easy A last year: there seems to be an unwritten rule that they be perverse. There always seems to be more eccentricity, more sex, more overwrought drama, more whipsmart dialogue, and more true love in teen films than in any actual high school. I’ve always loved this about this genre — who doesn’t want to imagine a world like that in Say Anything, in which John Cusack might be best friends with Lili Taylor, who gets drunk at parties and plays awful, maudlin songs about her ex on the guitar?

But after watching The Myth of the American Sleepover, I feel there’s a sorry predictability, even a pathetic idealism to all that. This movie, in contrast, feels real. I was blown away by its rejection of perversity. This movie, made by first-time director David Robert Mitchell, is kind of perfect.It’s structured like American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993): it’s an ensemble tale of teenagers during one single night at the end of the summer, roaming the generic suburban streets of Detroit. Some are searching for idealized love; some for a kind of excitement that’ll re-chart their lives, their identities. And like those two other films, which are set in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively, this one seems to be set in some kind of nonspecific past during which none of the teens is distracted by cell phones, texting, and computers. They wander those leafy streets by foot, by bike, and sometimes in someone else’s car … in fact, without all the familiar teen dating technologies, the film almost seems nostalgic, even as it’s paced with great emo songs of our own time (including a song by Beirut called Elephant Gun that I’ve got to get).

It’s true that one of the film’s major themes is innocence and experience — familiar ground for fans of the teen film genre. Yet somehow each one of the kids make choices that surprise you. Those choices are especially refreshing because the girls in the film are so beautifully rendered and so elegantly fleshed out by these young actors.

Including the sweet-faced Maggie (Claire Sloma), whose facial piercings beg you to look past the baby fat and see her as a risk-taker. She drags her geeky, bespeckled friend Emma with her all over town as she tries desperately to find a bit of sexual excitement before their freshman year begins. But when she actually spends a little time with that handsome, older lifeguard from the pool, he says something surprising. “They trick you into giving up your childhood for all these promises of adventure,” he says thoughtfully. “By the time you realize what you’ve lost, it’s too late.” I found this film expressive of the kind of yearning I actually felt as a teen. Real teenagerhood is just like this — in love with the wrong people, yearning for the unknown for reasons you don’t understand, wanting to be someone different than you are, experiencing mini-moments of clarity, feeling awkward and doing stupid things you regret, even as you have that one thing you’re good at. Real teens aren’t just barreling forward toward adult joys and disappointments; they’re also pulled backward to innocence and childhood. As the lifeguard articulates, they feel acutely their own in-betweenness. Honestly, this is one of my favorite movies of 2011 — filed alongside the similarly sweet and magical filmic experiences like Midnight in Paris or Beginners or the wonderfully twisted A Somewhat Gentle Man.

Those shots of Maggie and Emma riding their bikes in the summer twilight, with the strains of Elephant Gun as their soundtrack — oh, how it makes me yearn. And I never feel nostalgic for my teenage years. What an accomplishment to have taken the teen film and figured out how to rewrite it. Readers, please: get it now while it’s streaming on Netflix.

7 Responses to “See this film: “The Myth of the American Sleepover” (2011)”

  1. servetus Says:

    Interesting. I don’t know if I have ever seen a film that successfully portrays the unconscious, inchoate feeling I had then (and only recognize now) of resisting growing up even as I was perforce doing it. Beautiful review.

    • Didion Says:

      Exactly! I remember feeling it most when I was in middle school; the heaviness of adulthood seemed so unbearable. I remember so vividly sitting in art class listening to the girl next to me talk about all the drugs she’d tried, and the guy across from me with his emergent facial hair, and thinking I just couldn’t bear this future. That summer between middle school and high school — Mitchell’s exactly right in pointing to that moment as the quintessential, precarious in-betweenness.

      • servetus Says:

        I was a little slower and I think it was the summer between sophomore and junior years — right after I started driving. I don’t even know exactly how to describe feeling but it always arose in the atmosphere of flirting.

  2. Didion Says:

    Flirting! that seems so right to me. You’ve got to see this film — even the dialogue seems weirdly familiar.

  3. Frankie Says:

    as a secret fan of the teen film genre–always waiting for the moment when a director nails the inbetweenness that you describe so well–i’m excited to see this film. thanks for the great review!

    • Didion Says:

      “Secret.” Ha ha. If that’s the way you want to play it, well, I won’t say anything (more) to tease you. But whether I believe your self-description, I do believe most fervently that you must see this film.

      On another note, I think I’m “secretly” a little bit in love with Claire Sloma as Maggie. The more I think about it the more I want to see more Sloma.

  4. […] Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award): Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at […]

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