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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jul. 28, 2011 | 11:27 PM

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There’s a great moment in David Robert Mitchell’s indie gem The Myth of the American Sleepover where two teenage boys find themselves in the rare position to see what really goes on when girls have their friends over on a Friday night.  After watching as several of their pajama clad classmates saunter up and down a hallway, their eyes open wide as one girl abruptly punches another.  The girl shoves back, and she finds herself tossed out into the street.  After taking a moment to process, Rob looks at his friend with bewilderment and remarks, “that’s not what I expected.”  Mitchell’s film is full of rich moments like this.  As its evocative title suggests, the time tested rites of passage remain, but things never unfold in quite the expected fashion.

The Myth of the American Sleepover has become a true indie success story.  The film began to generate buzz with a strong showing at SXSW in 2010, and then became the only American film invited to screen at the Critics week sidebar in Cannes.  Picked up for theatrical distribution by IFC Films, the movie will open in LA on July 29th, with a national rollout to follow.  Any one of these achievements would be remarkable for a film with a $50,000 budget.  Add them all up and it’s a success story which has rarely been seen since Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” was picked up by Miramax in the early 90’s. 

It’s cost not withstanding, The Myth of the American Sleepover is a modest movie, but one that achieves its aims with remarkable aplomb.  Set in a small Michigan town and boasting an all teen cast, many of whom were picked from the local area, Mitchell throws us right into the world of these kids as they make their way through the last weekend of summer.  There’s drinking, there’s smoking, there’s girls chasing boys, and boys walking around town looking for girls.  All of this is pretty standard fare for the genre, but Mitchell and his stellar cast make it all seem fresh.  Working in a style that’s part French New Wave, part early Bogdanovich, Mitchell emphasizes naturalism, but his emphasis on nostalgia, real and imagined, succeeds in giving the film a bittersweet tone which is rarely seen in American movies.  The film certainly isn’t much of a pace with current indie trends, and stands out all the more because of it.

Banking on the assumption that certain moments of human connection transcend generations, the film stubbornly refuses to pin itself down to any specific time period.  At first this seems confusing, as a Panasonic boom box from the early 80’s seems to co-exist with twenty first century cars, but then we realize it’s intentional.  Likewise, the film’s characters seem to have zero interest in employing digital technology.  This may be slightly implausible, but two girls riding their bikes through a summer rainstorm is much more interesting to watch than two girls texting

Mitchell includes not just one, but multiple sleepovers in the film, which function as a backdrop for the kids in the film to size each other up.  There are also parties, parades, and a seriously misguided expedition to Ann Arbor by the film’s lone college character who attempts to reconnect with the objects of a fleeting high school crush.  Even this misadventure ends up with sweet and surprising results. 

As with any debut feature, there are a few flaws.  Mitchell’s characters wax a little too eloquently about nostalgia from time to time which comes close to breaking the spell the movie so effectively casts.  One could also argue that the parade sequence which closes the film is a little grandiose as a conclusion for the understated character study the film unfolds.  But these are quibbles, and the cast is so likable that they make the ending work. 

For those who live in smaller markets without an art house theater, the movie will be available through IFC’s On Demand platform.  With any luck, the upcoming theatrical release will help Mitchell’s film find a larger audience.  It’s success on the festival circuit indicates that The Myth of the American Sleepover is quickly generating a mythology of its own.

The Myth of the American Sleepover opens Friday, July 29th at the NuArt Theatre in West Los Angeles.  Director David Robert Mitchell and members of the cast are scheduled to appear for discussion after the 7:30 and 10:00 showings on the 29th and 30th.

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