David Robert Mitchell's rhapsodic teen hang-out movie is one hell of a debut.
If the title of David Robert Mitchell's fragile, magic hour multi-strander infers a debunking of certain mythic rituals associated with the 24-hour party that is adolescence, then it also addresses and reconfigures a certain fraudulent and fanciful depiction of teenagers that has become depressingly standardised in American cinema.
Set over a single, clammy evening in the leafy suburbs of Detroit, this utterly charming and refreshingly uncynical film gathers a large and diverse ensemble of school-age youngsters and charts their movements as the drift through the picket-fenced twilight in search of a drunken smooch.
Superficially similar to Richard Linklater's seminal 1993 hang-out movie, Dazed and Confused, Mitchell's film also deals with a host of characters who are standing at the doorway to adulthood and are not quite sure they want to cross the threshold. It rejects archetypes and deals in emotions rather issues: Mitchell is far more interested in chronicling tiny moments of transcendent truth than he is in judging the (mildly reckless) actions of his characters. Any lessons learned are for them, not for us.
Maggie (Claire Sloma) is an emo-inclined dancer with the hots for the life guard at the local pool, so crashes a party in the hope of getting close to him. That they've already shared a split-second passing glance as all the ammo she needs to justify her long night of spinning bottles, jumping into lakes and treating her fellow party goers to an ad-hoc jazzy dance number. Maggie is a wonderful character, so rich and unpredictable. She doesn't make decisions or take action with any crass desire for material results, she is a simply free and confident. She never thinks, only dreams.
Running along side this in another part of town is Scott's (Brett Jacobsen) story. He's a melancholy high-school leaver who yearns to remain in a state of arrested development. Before he leaves town, he decides he wants to locate the elfin twins who were in his drama class and declare his love for one of them. Though Mitchell has denied in interviews that any of the characters in the film are directly autobiographical, one could see Scott as a surrogate for the young director, here reliving the joys and pains of his formative years through the process of filmmaking.
Lacing together the various plot stands with the precision and poise of Robert Altman, Mitchell demonstrates a rare gift for telling stories that feel both casually sprawling and sublimely intimate. His film is a wistful ode to the bliss of youth: happiness, romance, depression, confusion, and disappointment barely register, while a sense of freedom and advanced emotional education take over. Dialogue is spare, and it acknowledges the fact that teenagers aren't trading Bob Hope-style wisecracks all day long. They're actually quite reserved and confused.
More than bellowing any grand thematic pronouncements, The Myth of the American Sleepover simply captures a time, a place and a feeling. And just when you think the various plot strands are about to meander into nothingness, Mitchell executes a subtly rhapsodic final scene in which all the characters come together in a town parade. It ends on a note of intense optimism, recalling nothing less than the climax of Jacques Tati's Playtime, when his futuro-Paris is converted into a surreal fairground.
These gorgeous closing shots affirm that these characters have made it through the night unscathed, that they have many wild adventures ahead of them, and that the world can be a beautiful place if you just sit back and stare at it from the right angles.
It's been a long time since it debuted at Cannes in 2010.
Soulful, heartening and – in its final scene – heartbreaking.
Remember that name: David Robert Mitchell