The eloquent, austere writing-directing debut of David Robert Mitchell, "The Myth of the American Sleepover" was shot for approximately $50,000 in the Michigan suburbs using a primarily inexperienced local cast. It is tellingand more than a little unfortunatethat a motion picture of such limited means can be more observant, true and honestly acted than the bulk of studio-funded coming-of-age films whose catering costs likely total more than this one's entire budget. Alas, that's how it goes with Hollywood filmmaking vs. true indie auteurs, the former typically preoccupied with commercial marketability and the bottom line and the latter having to answer to no one but their own sincere, discriminating vision.
It is the last weekend of summer vacation for the teenagers and college kids living in an unnamed middle-class small town, a part-wistful/part-exciting time when the possibilities of what the new school year may hold are wide open. For now, though, they simply want to make the most of their last days of freedom. Slumber parties run rampant through the neighborhood, but they act as pinpoints to the action surrounding them. Pixie-ish incoming freshman Maggie (irresistible newcomer Claire Sloma) and best friend Beth (Annette DeNoyer) make a detour on their way to their sleepover and end up at a lakeside party where Maggie finally connects with her crush, slightly older lifeguard Steven (Douglas Diedrich). Another freshman, Rob (Marlon Morton), becomes drawn to a beautiful blonde (Madi Ortiz) he sees at the grocery store and wanders off from his sleepover with buddy Marcus (Wyatt McCallum) to try and find out who she is. New girl Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is excited to be invited to the home of Janelle (Shayla Curran), a popular girl on her track team, only to discover she has a secret history with her boyfriend Sean (Christopher Simon). Finally, Scott (Brett Jacobsen) has one year left in college, but isn't sure if he's going to finish it out. Still pining after twins Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey), former high school classmates preparing to start at the local university, he manages to track them down, then is left wondering which one of the two likes him back.
Interweaving and narrowly connecting, the characters in "The Myth of the American Sleepover" stand as a microcosm of the teenage experience in Anytime, USA. Avoiding cell phones and high-end technology while keeping things like clothing, hairstyles, music and cars enigmatic to any singular decade, writer-director David Robert Mitchell wants the film to be universal to anyone who has gone through adolescence. This, he achieves, even when certain experiences do not personally connect to the viewer so much as the emotions that said situations entail. His ensemble, unconscientious and raw, feel like real high school and college kids, not perfectly scrubbed actors from Los Angeles casting central. If they aren't all as developed on a point-by-point basis as one would like, it is only because Mitchell aims to document them in their natural here-and-now. Set over a 24-hour period, this is but a snapshot of their lives. As such, it's unforced and beautiful.
"The Myth of the American Sleepover" is ambiguous in that it doesn't need to spell out every story point and character motivationthat Rob's sidekick Marcus turns down the advances of a girl he meets is all the evidence needed to understand his heart quietly belongs to the boy next to him, whether he is even fully aware of this yet or notbut it's all laid out for viewers paying attention. That's not difficult to do. Dodging easy melodrama and preferring to focus on the little moments that stay with us in our memories through the years, the picture's low-key indelibility sneaks up on the audience. A tipsy late-night trip down a water-slide with the person you like. A passing wave between acquaintances going though similar rites of passage. A good friend laying their head on your shoulder. A discovery that cemented your suspicion that life wasn't always going to be fair. The list goes on. About sleepovers, Steven opines to Maggie, "It's the kind of thing you miss when you're too old to do it anymore." "I guess," Maggie responds, not quite old enough to fully understand what he means, but sensing that, with high school, then college, then adulthood, change is imminent. It's a time in one's life that, once gone, will never be gotten back. It's a notion at once quietly tragic and oddly reassuring.