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MOVIE REVIEW

The Myth of the American Sleepover

‘Sleepover’ gets being a teenager just right

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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The teenagers in “The Myth of the American Sleepover’’ look like babies. You search all the faces for some trace of impending adulthood, and you don’t find any. They have pimples and fat and braces. They’re gangly and don’t know what to do with their bodies or their hands. They’re unpracticed. They haven’t figured anything out yet. This isn’t how teenagers are in most American movies. Those teenagers seem 30.

Even the girl we see bent over smelling shampoo - the one a boy named Rob (Marlon Morton) spends the movie hoping to see again - is pretty in an unfinished sort of way. So are the twin pre-frosh Ady and Anna (Jade and Nikita Ramsey). It all makes the unpolished acting seem somehow more poignant. They haven’t yet figured that out, either.

“The Myth of the American Sleepover’’ is the first film by the writer and director David Robert Mitchell. It has a sense of small-town America that feels special even without great specificity. Some of the music on the soundtrack places it in 2007 or 2008, but, really, the film occurs outside of time, virtually outside of place (it’s suburban Detroit), and in a void of cultural chic. No one uses the Internet to humiliate anyone else. No text messages attack the screen. Apple is a product you eat.

One girl, Maggie (Claire Sloma), does have a short, chopped-up haircut and a pierced lip and nose, but the movie is an old-fashioned, summer’s-over tale of hormones - hers and Rob’s, as well as those of a rangy blonde named Claudia (Amanda Bauer), and a lonely college senior named Scott (Brett Jacobsen), who’s out looking for those twins and whose 35-year-old demeanor qualifies him as the film’s single outlier.

The film is one night in the lives of kids from one neighborhood. There are a couple of parties and two comically overpopulated sleepovers, one with girls, another with boys. Mitchell pulls off what is difficult to do: He puts all this generic material to guileless ends. Maggie finds a big-band song on a boombox and does a drunken majorette routine to it. Any worries that the pool attendant she likes will reject her out of embarrassment are misspent. Her kicks and jazz hands only make him want her more. She also likes a bad boy who winds up in a boat with her long-suffering sidekick Beth (Annette DeNoyer), a bespectacled church mouse of a girl who in a cartoon would be Marcy to Maggie’s Peppermint Patty.

The two main boys - Rob and Scott - don’t quite know how to be around women or what to do with them. They verge on creepy. The movie has won logical comparisons to George Lucas’s “American Graffiti’’ and Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,’’ but these kids don’t have any of the Hollywood charisma of the actors in those movies. When Rob tires of sitting in a living room watching a porny slasher movie and looking at nudie magazines with his buddies, he sneaks up to peep into the bathroom where the older sister of the sleepover’s host is soaking. She invites him in and when he has nothing to offer except his hard stare, she pulls the shower curtain closed. Show’s over. Richard Dreyfuss would have at least made her laugh. But Dreyfuss also would have had all the answers. What feels so true about this movie is the ways it’s unvarnished by the grown-up wisdom of remembrance or the ache of nostalgia that bestows wit and grace and tidiness upon the chaos of adolescence. I remember 15. It was a mess. Mitchell’s movie serenely amplifies the mess.

The film that came to mind more than Lucas’s or Linklater’s was Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides’’ in the way it understands the psychic dominion of teenage lust. Mitchell is a more basic filmmaker than Coppola, but he gets his point across with sophistication and touching, human averageness. Other directors have made impressive first movies only to let the Hollywood meat grinder turn them into hamburgers. David Gordon Green comes to mind. You’d hate to see that happen to Mitchell. His voice isn’t particularly original, but it’s warm and full of feeling.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER

Written and directed by: David Robert Mitchell

Starring: Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton, Brett Jacobsen, Jade Ramsey, Nikita Ramsey, and Amanda Bauer

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 93 minutes

Unrated (Some crude language, sexuality, nudity, and a Ouija board)

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