Memory is Myth, by Charles Lyons
In his assured feature film debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, David Robert Mitchell trains his cinematic eye on four teens (embodied by Marlon Morton, Claire Sloma, Amanda Bauer, and Brett Jacobsen), varied in age, each at different steps emotionally and developmentally on the adolescent stairwell, all of whom reside in the lazy suburbs of Detroit. (The time period is unclear, though the film’s washed out, faded aesthetic emanates early/mid-’90s vibes.) All four characters spend most of the movie in a constant state of pursuit, of what it’s not always clear, to the audience or, it would seem, to the characters themselves. Perky rising high school freshman Maggie (Sloma) can’t keep her eyes off the hottie lifeguard at her local pool (and eventually follows him to a lakeside party). The soft-spoken Rob (Marlon Morton), also a freshman, can’t get the stunning blonde he spots at the supermarket in the opening minutes of the movie out of his head, and spends the ensuing afternoon and evening parading across town trying to track her down. Jacobsen’s Scott, an upcoming college sophomore homeward bound for the summer months, becomes fixated with a set of twins he had a crush on in his high school days and sets out to find them and profess his feelings, as well as to attempt to ascribe some meaning to what’s seemingly an aimless, confused existence. All the while, Claudia (Bauer), a rising high school sophomore, is attempting to make her mark on the town’s social scene while also maintain a healthy relationship with her senior boyfriend, Sean (Christopher Simon), despite wandering eyes. But what of the loves these characters are frantically chasing? And are they really just trying to find themselves? The film, penned and directed by Mitchell, is told via strands of narrative concerning each of the four kids, strands that don’t converge until the film’s final scene. As he elegantly cuts between each section, we’re privy to the filmmaker’s incisive understanding of both the commonalities and dissimilarities of the adolescent experience.
Myth of the American Sleepover is a film that never calls attention to itself, despite being a dense, complex piece of work. Mitchell’s authorial touch isn’t preening or cloying, but fleet-footed and finely-tuned; thrillingly naturalistic, with carefully dispensed dashes of whimsy. The director’s approach to his characters and their various emotional states is hardly black and white, not solely elated or bone-crushingly sullen—as films of this sort tend to be played—but somewhere in the realistic, muddy space between. Here is a filmmaker not afraid to portray both hope and angst, all in the same cinematic breath. Which is to say Mitchell’s debut film bursts with emotional, thematic and formal variation, all of different tones, calibers, and degrees. This variation is best exemplified in a scene roughly halfway into the film in which Maggie and her best friend bike to a nearby house party. (Notably, the first bit of this sequence is made up entirely of warm medium shots.) The pair arrive on the scene, only to spot to the lifeguard Maggie has been admiring from a distance for the whole summer. He approaches the two girls, recognizing them immediately, and proposes they come swimming with him and a few other friends. Naturally, they agree, and as he stows the girls’ bikes into the trunk of his car, Mitchell cuts sharply to a close-up inside the cramped vehicle into which Maggie and her companion are crammed. With this brisk cut comes a dramatic change in sonic tone as well as camera angle, as the sounds of trees swaying in the breeze and the faint murmur of conversation that previously occupied the soundtrack shifts abruptly to the rock music belting out of the car speakers. This sharp variation—along with Mitchell’s cross-cutting between narrative threads, and thus shifting between the perspectives of our set of leads—boldly speaks to the disorientation and fickleness of emotion that plagues the adolescent headspace.
And yet, despite Myth‘s constantly morphing emotional, formal, and tonal state, this is an incredibly fluid movie, its structure appropriately jarring but never jolting, even organic. Each narrative strand feeds smoothly into the next, a feat that can be attributed both to Mitchell’s direction and screenplay. This intense fluidity is complimented by the fact that countless scenes involve water—pools, baths, lakes, etc.—in a big way, further enhancing what is already a slippery, fluent experience. Another of the film’s most prominent strengths its insightful feel for conversation and human interaction, which is natural, honest and felt. Both the writing in every scene, as well as the sometimes fumbling but never less than genuine performances, feel so on-point, such an accurate, cozy and relatable depiction of interpersonal adolescent mingling. In addition, the movie is thrillingly mindful of little moments and off-the-cuff details. This is an unquestionably small film—it runs a tight 90-odd minutes, boasts a shoe-string budget, as well as a modest scope and make—but it’s in moments such as these, a hand grazing another, two feet sloshing around in a pool of water, that this debut effort feels practically titanic. This is sensorily agile, alive cinema at its best.
Though Myth of the American Sleepover often lingers (on emotions, on certain compositions, on expressions), Mitchell never beleaguers his points. He has a laundry list of themes and queries to hit home and he does so with satisfying succinctness and brevity. (Though, admittedly, ‘laundry list’ might imply that Mitchell’s parceling out of the film’s intended themes feels in some way calculated or clinically predetermined. Needless to say, it isn’t. Each theme and motif springs organically from the narrative and situations at hand.) We sit in astonishment at Mitchell’s deep well of insight into the human experience, especially surprising given the relatively new nature of this director’s (extreme) talents—a filmmaker whose only previous contributions to the cinematic world are a couple of shorts as well as a curious gig as editor of the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony. In one remarkable sequence knee-deep into the movie, Mitchell poignantly explores the polarizing subjectivity present in the adolescent mindset. Two groups of teens pass each other on the sidewalk, one comprised of males, the other females, both on their way to separate occasions. After an uncomfortable confrontation between the two clans, they part ways and walk in opposite directions. As they part, Mitchell hilariously and brilliantly cuts back and forth between the groups’ conversations, striking a clear juxtaposition between perspectives, thereby erasing any notion of objectivity. Given that an ongoing thread with Rob involving a viewfinder and a girl he claims to’ve slept with also enforces this query, the film could easily be read as a heartfelt paean to subjectivity.
As the headline of this piece and the title of the film itself suggests, Myth could also be taken as a text on the enigma and mythos of memory, and the way we process out experiences. In a great scene midway through the movie, Maggie sits with the curly-haired lifeguard she fancies on a floating dock in the middle of a lake. As they sit, very still but obviously giddy, he remarks on the freedom of childhood naivete and innocence, and laments that he’s too old for sleepovers anymore, speaking reverentially of the rituals of such gatherings. This scene vividly expresses the way that we as people, particularly teenagers, lionize the past, the way that eventually memories evolve in our minds into positively-exaggerated impressions, myths, if you will. It’s a query subtly furthered in a visual manner much later into the picture by Mitchell and DP James Laxton as a character walks from a brightly lit space to an dim one. As he slowly disappears into the night air, he’s engulfed by shadows until all one can discern of him is a tall, barely-defined outline of a figure. Myth of the American Sleepover, is, in this way, also a heartbreaking treatise on the ever-evaporating, always-fondly-regarded nature of memory, specifically in the teenage headspace.
The movie, is, finally, a soulful, felt expression of its characters’ pervading sense of target-less, roving desire, aimless wandering, and insatiable curiosity. Indeed, visually, the film is a tart cavalcade of symbolically opening and closing doors, windows, shower curtains and the like, visualizations that nicely underscore a story about opportunities both missed and realized. Mitchell and Laxton (who shot 2009’s equally gorgeous Medicine for Melancholy) also fascinatingly deconstruct the longing adolescent gaze. In fact, if the film was stripped bare of dialogue or sound, it might be appreciated as a web of prolonged, connecting, intertwining, sparring, and desirous gazes. However, unfortunately, when all is said and done, something about the way Mitchell concludes Myth of the American Sleepover doesn’t sit well with me. It’s understandably difficult to end a film such as this one, a small yet still narratively sprawling production, with its focus spread evenly across a reasonably large cast of characters. It’s especially tricky given Mitchell’s approach: fluid and naturalistic, a course-of-action that doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to a tidy conclusion. This last-minute snag is, oddly enough, not something I can quite put my finger on after one viewing. The movie, as complex and rich as it is, is admittedly a lot to take in on just one viewing, so perhaps the overwhelmingly negative feelings I experienced upon its close were that of some kind of cinematic overload, or something of the sort. But perhaps not. It’s a problem, at this point in time, that can be put on the back-burner. For now let’s appreciate what is unquestionably one of the best films of the year so far; an invigorating well of emotional truth, admirably conveyed by an almost freakishly promising talent-to-watch.