Another ensemble coming-of-age film involving a handful of high schoolers on their last day of summer experiencing the pains of love? But wait, with little fanfare outside of festival play and the Independent Spirit Awards, and almost no penetration into the mainstream consciousness, this picture is arguably the best high school movie produced in years. Just when you thought it was impossible to find a fresh way to tell a high school saga, writer/director David Robert Mitchell manages to find realism and truth in almost every frame of this picture.
Myth of the American Sleepover (2011) dir. David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton and Amanda Bauer
By Alan Bacchus
We’re in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. It’s the last day of summer, and the film finds a number of lost, disaffected teens trying to reconcile their confused feelings of lost love and satisfy their sexual urges and social frustration. There’s Maggie (a remarkable debut for Clara Sloma), who in the opening scene ogles a shaggy-haired older boy poolside. Tagging along with her is her socially awkward and not as physically developed best friend. Together they pass on a girls’ sleepover with the cool crowd to chase after the boy at a lakeside cottage party. There’s also Claudia (Amanda Bauer), the new girl in town who does go to the sleepover but ends up attracting the host’s vacant zombie-like boyfriend.
Rob (Marlon Morton) attends a guys’ sleepover (not called a sleepover of course) but, not unlike Richard Dreyfuss’s character in American Graffiti, feels compelled to comb the streets of Detroit looking for a nameless blonde with whom he’s blindly become smitten.
Sadly, there’s one bad apple on this tree. It’s the plotting of one of the school graduates, who returns home after flunking out and now pines after a pair of twins from his year who are attending the University of Michigan. His journey to Ann Arbour and his idealistic attempt to barge into the girls’ dorm and convince them that he loves them is the stuff of John Hughes and all the imitators Mitchell seems to be trying to avoid.
But for the most part, the actions, attitudes and reactions of his characters to life’s most complicated situations feel more natural and honest than anything depicted in any John Hughes movie. While Linklater’s and Lucas’s high school opuses (Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti, respectively) anchored their films in raucous set pieces and nostalgic melancholy, Mitchell chooses a Gus Van Sant approach. There’s no self-awareness like from the Hughes imitators, and no raunchy lollygagging like in the Apatow approach. Mitchell’s characters exist in a vacuum of emotional disaffection, true to their immaturity, acting on instinct and completely unaware that they are indeed ‘coming of age.’
That said, even in the non-melodramatic progression of their individual journeys, the non-professional actors portraying these mundane lives are intoxicating and impossible not to fall in love with. Clara Sloma is decidedly un-Hollywood looking and has a palpable cinematic je ne sais quoi ‘screen presence,’ which could make her star. She has the best scene in the film – a drunken dance sequence during which Maggie impulsively jumps into a choreographed dance sequence in front of a group of stunned male teenagers. Of course, in any other hackneyed high school film she would have been verbally ridiculed or embarrassed somehow. Yet the boys in the film, like the audience, can only marvel at Maggie’s innate brilliance. David Robert Mitchell's film matches the quirky brilliance of Maggie's performance.