I grew up in suburban Detroit, and there was an odd sort of stagnancy to my childhood. Growing up in a place where people bragged they hadn’t been to downtown Detroit in decades made me feel the defining feature of the place was being proudly immune to social change.
Add in the matchless ennui of an adolescent summer–the sense of the clock of life slowing to a crawl as you wait and wait to enter adulthood–and you have the ingredients of The Myth of the American Sleepover. This debut film of writer-director David Robert Mitchell (who himself grew up in suburban Detroit and shot the film there in 2008) is a rambling sleepwalk through the last night of a teenage summer: a woozy mix of inexplicable urges and disappointingly bland events, a fruitless grasping for something just out of reach: meaning, connection, love.
Sleepover, written by Mitchell in 2002 by stitching together semiautobiographical sketches from prior years, was released in 2010 (mostly on the festival circuit), and makes its Ann Arbor theatrical debut at the Michigan October 8. It will strike most viewers as weirdly anachronistic: no characters have a cell phone or a computer, a boy has an actual world globe in his room, the girls at a sleepover play on a Ouija board, and one girl discovers another girl’s been sleeping around by reading her diary in a dresser drawer–not on Facebook.
Mitchell has said he was attempting to make a film that telescoped fifty years of teenage suburban nights into one timeless quilt. It’s a noble effort. Whether it strikes you as clumsy or profound may depend on your mood, because this is primarily a mood movie. Compared most often to Richard Linklater’s cult classic Dazed and Confused, it harkens back stylistically more to John Cassavetes and Francois Truffaut. It’s all adolescent stirrings unrealized–the kind of movie you haven’t seen in a long time, where teenage boys tell girls they want to kiss them or hold hands with them (and sometimes the girls refuse), where there’s no gross-out humor, no handheld shaky cam, and what passes for rebellious acting out is drinking beer, smoking cigarettes (no marijuana though!), and egging and TP’ing a house. The actors, all amateurs from Michigan, are led by the striking (star-is-born?) Claire Sloma but mostly register as typically inexpressive teens speaking clumsy lines that often fall flat. It’s an awkward movie about the pinnacle of awkwardness–and, as such, a welcome antidote to what Hollywood does to pump up the vastly overrated experience of the end of adolescence. Sometimes the best experimental movies go against the grain of what’s currently popular, and Sleepover certainly does: it’s boldly irony free.
This review has been edited since it appeared in the October 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The date of the showing has been corrected.