When delineating the quality of teen dramas, there’s no handier reference than John Hughes. In the case of David Robert Mitchell’s enjoyably peculiar ensemble piece, “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” the Hughes comparison requires more complex modifiers. Entertainment Weekly’s Grady Smith wrote that it “feels like a John Hughes script directed by Gus Van Sant,” while Esquire contributor Stephen Garrett took the concept even higher, calling it “John Hughes with a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema.”
In either case, the idea is Mitchell has pushed a familiar genre in deeper directions. Indeed, it stands apart from the conventional Hughes spawn, which generally follow the jokier path set forth by Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks.” Writer-director Mitchell shows no disdain for that brand of funny, but he doesn’t tap into it, either.
“The Myth of the American Sleepover” displays a thoughtful intent to deconstruct the genre, draining much of its comedic potential in favor of near-sociological observation (which allows its appeal to extend beyond U.S. borders, as it was the rare American entry in Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar). Mitchell’s casual pace focuses on the moments between the punchlines, which puts it in a decidedly different headspace than anything in the Hughes oeuvre. (He has cited “American Graffiti” as a bigger influence.)
Taking place over the course of a single night in suburban Michigan, “The Myth of the American Sleepover” focuses on several horny youths struggling through moments of romantic despair. There are actually two sleepovers in question: A school-mandated freshman orientation sleepover taking place in the high school gym and a naughtier house party hosted by a girl none of the young protagonists know too well. The settings are merely backdrops that present a handful of teens whose experiences continuously weave together and break apart.
Flirty dance troupe member Maggie (Claire Sloma) roams the neighborhood with a soft-spoken pal, befriending her hunky male neighbor and crashing a twentysomething’s house party. Recent high school grad Scott (Brett Jacobsen) returns to his old haunts to track down a pair of twins he knew back in the day — one of whom may have a crush on him, but he’s not sure which. At the smaller sleepover, Claudia (Amanda Bauer) schemes to steal another girl’s boyfriend by manipulating the rules of a party game. Rounding out the events, the relentlessly eager Rob (Marlon Morton) roams the neighborhood, frantically searching of a hook-up.
Most of these quests take the form of passing glances and suggestive lines. “Myth” assumes the unlikely mold of a sexual thriller and runs with it, particularly by emphasizing the repeated motif of a man and woman sitting side by side and waiting anxiously for the other person to make a move. Mitchell’s camera hovers outside the tensions, nimbly taking them apart.
What his ensemble lacks in eloquence they make up in shrewd self-awareness. When cliques of two different genders pass each other on the street, the men won’t say what they’re really planning. “I guess guys don’t call them sleepovers,” says one of their opposites, which prompts the reply, “Not publicly.”
As a study of teen behavior, “Myth” excels with a show-stopping dance scene featuring Maggie getting down to jazz rhythms on the radio before an entranced party crowd. Recalling Anna Karina’s likeminded solo performance in Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie,” Maggie’s swift maneuvering deepens the character better than any line of dialogue.
In his feature-length debut Michell shows his broad capacity for subtext, if not prolonged conversations. The innumerable awkward exchanges dominating “Myth” sometimes gives the cast a muted, synthetic quality, but then the movie isn’t exactly realistic in the first place. With nearly all the action taking place at night, the shadowy encounters become almost expressionistic and the narrative exists in a fully contained universe devoid of anyone above the age of 20.
By favoring mood over plot, “Myth” explores what it feels like to transition into young adulthood and face harsher truths. An older character wisely explains it as “giving up your childhood for all these promises of adventure.” Mitchell opens up a few prospects for his subjects, but leaves none of their fates certain. In other words, the myth lives on.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sundance Selects will release the movie this week at the Angelika in New York, followed by the Nuart in L.A. on July 29 and the Main Art in Detroit on August 5. The film received strong notices on the festival circuit, which should help drive some initial interest, but it will do most of its business on VOD, while successfully marking Mitchell as a talent to watch.