SXSW Review: The Myth of the American Sleepover

By  · Published on March 30th, 2010

There are few things in this world that both connect and divide people in such a way as the time most all of us spent in high school. A shared experience that virtually everyone has in common, it seems we all have an emotional response when looking back at one of the most formative times in our lives, be it happiness, sadness, anger, remorse, melancholy or even apathy, or, probably more often than not, a mixture of those and other feelings. The Myth of the American Sleepover is a subtle, some would say simple film, that attempts to capture those impressions, those memories of moments that seemed so important at the time, chasing after them like a kid trying to catch a lightning bug.

There’s a scene about halfway through the film where a somewhat world-wise junior is explaining a loss of innocence with a malleable young freshman. He talks about how pleasures fade, how chasing the things that seem cool at the time essentially cause you to grow up too fast. You’re trading your innocence for adventure. He refers to it as the myth of being a teenager and the impact of his statements hit me with full force. Perhaps speaking a little too wisely for a high school junior, the truth in what he said was undeniable to me. It was the point, for me, where The Myth of the American Sleepover went from being a good film to a great film.

Myth is a film that perfectly captures growing up, from the chasm dividing middle school and high school, the comfort of finding your groove towards the end of school, the problems that seem so insurmountable at the time, to the feeling of coming home from college an adult in so many ways and yet still sort of longing for the relative ease of those teenage years. As you can probably tell from the fact that the film tackles so many emotions that kids experience at different points in their lives, Myth is an ensemble piece following at least a half-dozen threads. A daunting task to be sure, particularly from a first-time feature filmmaker, but writer/director David Robert Mitchell handles it all with relative ease, balancing each plot line, while keeping the overall story moving forward. He bounces between the different characters in a way that allows them each just enough room to breath without feeling like the pace has stalled. It’s a fine line to walk, and some will disagree, but I found the tempo pitch-perfect, showing amazing balance between not lingering for too long while at the same time not abruptly cutting anything too short.

One of the biggest problems facing any film trying to tackle a project of such broad scope is making sure the audience can follow the characters. I found it exceptionally simple to follow. Character names are varied enough to make it easy to differentiate and none of the actors look similar enough to confuse with one another. While some of the characters aren’t named until late in the film, they are visually unique and easily definable by their character traits, as in the somewhat mischievous blonde girl with the nose ring. In fact, by the end of the film, I had actually confused the blonde girl’s name with her best friend (the blonde is Maggie, her friend is Beth), but it had no bearing on my ability to understand what was happening in the film.

I’m not sure why exactly, but I had this notion going in that it was going to look low budget and cheap. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shot on RED in 2.35:1, Myth looks theatrical. Whereas so many indie and festival titles wear their budget on their sleeve, Myth looks like a real film, a cinematic experience that you could’ve seen at your local multiplex. Aside from a few isolated instances of poor exposure in low-light situations, Myth looks very good, very professional. And while that’s important to any smaller film, it seems almost more important in this film, where Mitchell is clearly telling a quiet, relatively simple story but relating extremely personal emotions. Not having to look past bad cinematography, makes it that much easier as a viewer to find yourself immersed in this world.

The decision to shoot with a large cast of virtual unknowns must have been a difficult one, but it paid off in spades, including a Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Cast from the SXSW Narrative Feature jury. Credit should be given to both the casting agent and Mitchell, because the kids in the main roles all turn in good to great performances, with only a few bad line readings. This goes hand and hand with the solid cinematography to allow you to experience the story without having to get past poor work in either of these crucial areas. Brett Jacobsen, in particular, does a fine job in the role of Scott, despite looking like the love child of Sam Rockwell and Steve Nash. Scott is the older kid, coming back home from college and dealing with his first big heartbreak. It’s a situation similar to one I found myself in at about the same age and as I was watching I was recalling all of the pain and heartache I felt as I was trying to work through similar issues. And while Scott’s story resonated with me in a very specific way, the movie is filled with experiences, feelings and emotions that all hit close to home, not necessarily because I went through the same thing, but because I remember those feelings regardless of their cause.

The film is filled with young people to watch, actresses in particular. Jade and Nikita Ramsey play the Abbey twins with just enough realistic skepticism mixed with vulnerability. It’s clear in their body language and facial expressions as well as line deliveries and I’ll be interested to see what they do in the future. Claire Sloma plays Maggie, arguably the main character. The film opens and closes on shots of Maggie, and in a way, we watch her character go through the biggest arc. Clarie seems to still be quite young herself, and perhaps that helped her play Maggie with such aplomb, highlighting her adventurous, somewhat rebellious nature while simultaneously underscoring it with insecurity and awkwardness. Also of note is Mary Wardell, who plays Scott’s younger sister Jen. She’s confident and self-assured, mature in a way her peers just can’t match. She also happens to be adorable, with piercing eyes that speak volumes. I have no idea what’s in store for her, but I hope she gets noticed. She’s worth seeking out.

Myth hearkens back to a time with its own responsibilities and pressures. It’s tempting to look back now, with a different set of problems and goals, and call that time easy, but just as with every new phase in life, it seems like the most important thing in the world while you’re in it and only once you’re past it can you truly put it in perspective. Myth is a captivating, emotionally rich film that reminds you of days long past. If, and hopefully when, you have a chance to see it, don’t hesitate. It is an experience well worth having.

Side note: I found no place to mention this in my review, but while looking around at the film and its cast members on IMDb, I found that Brett Jacobsen, who played Scott in the film, was the editor on a good chunk of the special features on the Star Trek DVD/Blu-ray release.

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