The title of The Myth of the American Sleepover suggests the film could be some Skins-style exploitation-exposé of what naughty things teens really do in the middle of the night. But writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s Altman-esque micro-indie ensemble drama about adolescents in suburban Michigan isn’t a titillating teen flick. This “one mildly crazy night” movie unfolds with a woozy, loosey-goosey pace that captures the teenage life at its most aimless and harmless, for better and for worse.
The sleepover is a cover story told to parents, of course, so the girls can get a little tipsy and the boys can toilet-paper houses. Goofy, gangly guys go cruising for girls they’re too afraid to approach; gossipy girls manipulate the Ouija board and contrive a heightened game of seven seconds in heaven. There’s small-bore romantic intrigue: A freshman wanders through town searching for his blonde dream girl; another girl bounces from one crush to another. In one elegant little scene, a teenage cool girl gets a mirror for her birthday gift and, trying to look sophisticated, makes a joke about using it for marijuana. One friend explains that mirrors are for coke, but the rest are either too nice, or too sheltered, to correct her.
The cast is largely inexperienced and the performances show that, but Claire Sloma, as the proto-alt-girl, and Amanda Bauer, as the outlier new girl, are each peculiar, strong actors who are comfortable with silence. The feel is documentary and muted — more mumblecore than Real World — and though the film is drawing comparisons to Dazed & Confused, there’s little in the way of comedy and a practically confounding tendency to treat drugs and sex as anything but hovering subtext. Other films amp up every potential crisis; this one downplays dramatic moments with distance and framing, as if shrugging them off. It’s the tonal, total opposite of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant.
Mostly, Mitchell’s unusual empathy is a virtue. It’s very easy to trump up tension with overdoses and date rapes to get at the danger of high school, but Mitchell is going after teenage qualities that are much harder to pin down: confusion, naiveté, vulnerability and kindness. Certain story lines falter (one involving a college kid in pursuit of two twins is ridiculous), but a number of precisely drawn moments capture a confused teenage tenderness we rarely see on film.
A blue and green planet, identical to Earth in every perceptible way, suddenly appears in the sky on the same day that a young woman named Rhoda (Brit Marling) crashes her car and kills the mother and child of Yale composer. You can’t say that Mike Cahill’s Another Earth doesn’t go for broke: The visual of a mirror globe hanging in the sky, twice the size of the moon, is unsettling and oddly powerful, but the film hangs uneasily between two worlds too: Though Marling, who cowrote the film with Cahill, delivers a marvelously still and composed performance that should launch her career, the film is unsatisfying both as a philosophical mind-blower and as a soap-operatic tragedy.
The film could be an episode of The Twilight Zone, or the opening for a sci-fi epic, but the action here is all earthbound: Fresh out of prison and paralyzed with regret, Rhoda begins to stalk Alex (William Mapother, who Lost fans will remember as Ethan), the grieving father of the mother and child she accidentally killed. Somehow, she poses as his housekeeper, and keeps returning to his home so often that she becomes his confidant and eventually his lover. Marling plays Rhoda with a transfixing stillness and serene confidence, but the role is a crock. Despite solid performances, the two-character drama is far less believable than the idea of a second planet suddenly popping into the sky.
Meanwhile, the mystery planet is used almost solely as a heavy handed, almost stoner-friendly, device: If you knew there was an alternate dimension within reach, how would it change your idea of yourself? Would it make it easier to forgive yourself because everything might be okay on that other planet? Or harder? The film is stuffed full with ambitious ideas that never take flight. It’s far too contrived to work as a tragedy, and too thin as a piece of intellectual inquest. In the end, the film, beautifully shot and well performed, is trying so hard to be profound in so many ways to ever be much more than frustrating. Maybe in another dimension, Cahill nailed it, but not here.