This week in movies you missed: Awkward teenagers doing awkward teenage things the way teenagers actually do, which will not remind you of Project X or American Pie.
What You Missed:
In a Detroit suburb, in an unspecified era (no cellphones or internet, no obvious '70s or '80s gear), it's the last day before school starts. All the kids are headed for parties or sleepovers or just trolling around in the hopes of getting that cute guy/girl to notice them.
Maggie (Claire Sloma, pictured), a lowly freshman, ditches her all-girl sleepover to look for trouble. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) wants to make friends at her new school but finds herself making waves instead. Rob (Marlon Morton), a virgin, can't stop thinking about the blonde he saw at the supermarket. Scott (Brett Jacobsen), a college student just dumped by his long-time girlfriend, tries to recapture his high school prime by seducing a pair of twins.
All these plotlines weave their way through David Robert Mitchell's directorial debut, which screened at Cannes and a bunch of other festivals.
Why You Missed It
Widest U.S. release: three theaters.
Should You Keep Missing It?
If you like movies in the vein of Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti, no. The Myth of the American Sleepover owes obvious debts to both in the way it tries to bottle the bittersweet experiences of adolescence — the ones we look back on sentimentally, though they weren't fun at all. It's a little more raw, though, with a cast of unknowns who look like actual high schoolers, perhaps because some of them are.
There are certain movie conventions we accept without question. An action hero who crashes through a plate-glass window in a movie never gets hurt, and teenagers in movies almost always look and act like articulate twentysomethings. There's a good reason for that, as you'll know if you've seen the 7 Up documentary series, which follows a group of people from childhood into middle age. In the 14 Up installment, all the subjects — who have been exuberant kids, and will become thoughtful, talkative adults — just stare sullenly at the camera from behind thick curtains of hair. John Hughes movies are fun, but that is adolescence.
Mitchell puts that terrible teen awkwardness on screen in American Sleepover; the script is as far from Juno as you can get, and much of what happens between the characters is conveyed through a few words, or with body language. Not all the kids are flawless actors, but they are natural. It's great to see typical teen movie situations, like the guy trying to get it on with twins, playing out in a down-to-earth, believable way. ("We're not the same person," one twin points out.) Some of the stories have predictable resolutions, but they are never groanworthy.
More importantly, the movie evokes that last-night-of-summer feeling in its locations and cinematography, giving an elegiac beauty to all kinds of everyday situations. In my mind, this is the movie The Virgin Suicides should have been. Nothing can top the Coppola film's soundtrack for putting you in a sentimental nostalgia-haze, but The Myth of the American Sleepover has its own dreamy mood that sticks with you.
Verdict: Watch it early or late in the summer, with a cold beverage in hand and your yearbook nearby, and let the reminiscences flow. Just don't start Googling and drunkenly Facebooking everybody you knew in high school afterwards.
Since we didn't print them in the paper this week, here's the full list of DVD releases: