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Detroit Dreams of Youth:Revisiting the Myth of the American Sleepover

by William Carroll

“I just feel like I should have done more this summer.” Haven’t we all said this phrase, at some point in our lives? Haven’t we all looked back at our teenage years, at the periods in our life when summer seemed to last forever, and wondered if we did enough? If we made the most of it?

These words, spoken by Maggie (newcomer Claire Sloma), the teenage protagonist of David Robert Mitchell’s feature debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, surely form a nostalgic knot in the chest of any viewer.

As a teenager, Summer carries it with promises impossible to resist, and even more impossible to keep. The pressure to live life as fully as possible, built on spontaneous adventures and late-night drinking, is a pressure all teenagers must face annually until the tide of adult life brings them firmly ashore, wet and shivering. So it is, then, that David Robert Mitchell’s coming-of-age-r, set in suburban Detroit, speaks with the tongue of every teenager who has ever dared to dream big, bigger than their summer vacation could ever possibly allow. The result is a low-key indie drama that explores Hollywood’s favourite liminal space: the last few days before the new school year starts.

Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) remains the head prefect of this particular school-based subgenre, but so many of Hollywood’s best coming-of-age films deal with the near-mythic quality of the last fleeting days of summer. Fast Times at Richmond High (1982), Fandango (1985), and The Breakfast Club (1985) are all emblematic of Hollywood’s fascination with the minutiae of teenage life, and for all its clichés and dated character stereotypes the genre remains as popular as ever.

Arriving in 2010, The Myth of the American Sleepover seemed an ostensibly unremarkable addition to this bloated genre. Teenagers drifting aimlessly around suburbia? ‘Plastic cup politics’ in floodlit backyards? We’ve seen it. Frequently. But transpose the typical middle-class idylls of the Californian suburbs onto metro-Detroit, the locus of rust-belt American decline, and the mould begins to crack. Cast a group of young unknowns and leave them to navigate their night-time odyssey via naturalistic dialogue and nuanced, unadorned performances and you finally have something new.

“It’s a journey that sees them skulk across dark front lawns and into abandoned factories, all the while chasing love, lust, and liquor.”

The Myth of the American Sleepover loosely follows a group of four teenagers over one night, en route to various parties happening in their neighbourhood and crossing paths with friends along the way. It’s a journey that sees them skulk across dark front lawns and into abandoned factories, all the while chasing love, lust, and liquor. A journey that feels real because we’ve all done the same things. As teenagers, we probably didn’t play ‘chicken’ with sit-on tractors (Footloose) or break into our high school after dark (Dazed and Confused), but who among us can say they didn’t wander the streets of their hometown at night, drunk and in love with being young. Despite Mitchell’s oddly poetic title, a personal favourite of mine, sleeping is at the back of every head in this film. It’s a night for living.

The archetypal high-school cliques are visible but barely so, a far cry from the John Hughes days where playground subcultures could be spotted a mile away from their heavily affected clothing and exaggerated body language. There are also the same old-hat rituals of beer pong and problematic sexual politics – a subplot involving one of the older brothers and his quest to find two twins with half-romantic, half-sexual desire is jarring – but Mitchell’s quiet deviations from the high-school movie script make for an excitingly low-key approach to youth that feels both new and nostalgic.

Now a commercial name after the success of his follow-up indie horror It Follows, a film that shares a lot of thematic crossover with its predecessor, and with new release Under the Silver Lake currently making the festival circuits, it seems apt to take a step back to Mitchell’s feature debut and revisit its quietly beautiful commentary on what it means to be young, the world simultaneously at your feet and on your shoulders. We’re all too old for sleepovers now, unless it’s crashing at 4am on a friend’s sofa. But watching films like The Myth of the American Sleepover, we can pretend for an hour or two that we’re not. That any moment someone could knock on our door, or ask about a party happening that night. For a moment it’s the last day of summer, and there are finals plans to make.

You can watch the trailer, below.

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