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Now and Then: From ‘Ferris’ to ‘Sleepover,’ Teens, and Times, Have Changed

Now and Then: From 'Ferris' to 'Sleepover,' Teens, and Times, Have Changed

“The Myth of the American Sleepover,” David Robert Mitchell’s independent film about a group of suburban Detroit teens messing around, and messing up, on a single night near the end of summer, is a quiet reminder of the power, and price, of looking.

At times, “Sleepover” seems composed more of sidelong glances in supermarket aisles and deep gazes across expanses of ground than it is of dialogue. These kids are always looking at something, on the lookout for something, though what it is they don’t quite know. The camera doesn’t move from shot to shot so much as it traces the characters’ contours, a cinematography of desire that captures the longing — and for those of us who’ve aged out of adolescence, the nostalgia — that characterizes those years when the possible graze of another hand could seem a momentous occasion.

There are moments when “Sleepover” gets at the roots of the angsty affect that imbues the teenage patois, the loose limbs and forced diffidence of a group whose biggest fear is putting themselves too much on the line. The guys brag and lie about summer conquests on family vacations; the girls, among themselves, scoff, and lament the boys’ ineptitude.  “If I was young, I would leave this town,” croons the soundtrack — and Mitchell’s skill is in relaying a memory of those late, late nights of cheap beer and wine and vodka when the pack of cards was not yet fully dealt.

But “Sleepover” is a delicate piece of filmmaking and to submit it to too much questioning is to reveal its fragility. What year is it? What dreamworld have we stumbled upon, where TVs are grainy, antennae askew; where kids don’t text-message but wander the neighborhood; where boys looking at porn still stash magazines under the bed? In the end, it’s a safe film. We have yet to see a director take on the bawdiness of teenage life (as in “Superbad”) while still plumbing authentic depths of emotion.

“They trick you into giving up your childhood with all these promises of adventure,” one character says, but the rest of the film’s fretful innocence leaves such a line ringing rather less than true. My own memory of what kids did and said in high school more closely resembles writer-director John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus,” which left me thinking that the longing that “Sleepover” constructs so sweetly belongs more to the director than to us. 

Watching “Sleepover” alongside some of John Hughes’ great high school movies from the 1980s — funny, dark paeans of happiness and regret — David Robert Mitchell’s film struck me with its absence of adults. There’s not a one, which perhaps reflects the spate of books and articles lamenting the failures of American parenting. Adults have swung, the film suggests, between extremes of hand-holding and neglect, abdicating the real responsibility of preparing the next generation.

“The Breakfast Club” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), my two favorite entries in the Hughes canon, put adults front and center, a collective antagonist to be avoided, pranked, reviled and otherwise left to its own devices. “The Breakfast Club” is predicated on the notion that a common enemy — selfish parents, a raging principal played to the hilt by Paul Gleason — can unite a high school’s various social strata. As Bender (Judd Nelson), the sympathetic rebel, says sarcastically, “If he gets up, we’ll all get up. It’ll be anarchy!” It’s the rare film that can be honestly called laugh-out-loud funny, but even in this laugh-line there’s a startling suggestion that the adults are focused on all the wrong things. They see anarchy in a door that swings shut, Bender suggests. We know better.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is distinctly less serious than “The Breakfast Club” and if ever an advertisement were needed for cutting class, this is surely it. Watching Ferris (Matthew Broderick) take on Chicago on a bright spring day during senior year with his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck, never better) is like stepping into a time warp. Here is what nostalgia looks like, as it’s being created — the fear of getting older, of turning into “them;” the willingness to ignore consequences because you might not get the same chance twice.

I’d expect the adult versions of Ferris, Sloane and Cameron to have become their parents (we all do, in some form or fashion) and to sit content, parking their vintage Ferraris in the garage and buffing them with a diaper. But it’s nice, whether with the near-perfect confections of John Hughes, or the more shadowy, slippery atmosphere of “Sleepover,” to be reminded of the possibilities that were once there and that continue to linger. As Ferris says, “The question isn’t what we’re going to do, it’s what aren’t we going to do?”

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