Everybody fetishizes something. As much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I seem to fetishize over the American high school drama/comedy. Give me The Breakfast Club (1985), Dazed and Confused (1993), Clueless (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Easy A (2010), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Pitch Perfect (2012), hell give me Carrie (1976) at any time of the day! Or serve me up some Veronica Mars, some Freaks and Geeks, even a season or two of Glee and I’ll eat ’em up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there’s any film type that I consistently overrate, it has to be the American high school drama – although I was left unimpressed/really disliked some ‘classics’, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Mean Girls (2004), or the recent The Spectacular Now (2013).
Why this inclination? Guess someone else will have to do the psychoanalyzing by the end of this. But in order to get here, I first had to ask myself an important question a couple of weeks ago: what other movies did David Robert Mitchell direct? As an astute observer might have recognized by now, I am a quite the fan of Mitchell’s recent horror-masterpiece It Follows (2014). That was just…well, maybe I shouldn’t get into it now, as there is a time and a place for everything. But this was the connection that led me to The Myth of the American Sleepover, the first and only other feature film written and directed by Mitchell.
If It Follows is the poster child for the loss of innocence and the social stigma ensuing from sex and whatnot, then TMotAS represents the antithesis, it is the search and the obsession for a sexual/romantic ideal. Visually, it does feel like the two movies were shot almost back to back, with the same quaint suburban America providing the backdrop for a bunch of horny teenagers or teenager-have-beens to fulfill their cravings. And, as things usually go, especially around high school, everyone is interested in someone different to those interested in them.
The story revolves around three teens and an almost teen, who criss-cross throughout the movie in not particularly meaningful ways. What this does achieve though is to create a sense of claustrophobic closeness, a feeling that there are firm walls to the world in which these romantic entanglements occur. A pre-Tinder world, so to say. Each of the characters strives to draw the attention of one person or another. It is the end of summer, a new school year is set to begin, and there’s the thirst for setting a distinguishing mark in these last, eventful days. I’m not sure how popular sleepovers really are in the United States, but they’re frequently included in movies, and as movies always tell the truth, I can only conclude that they’re pretty popular. In Mitchell’s story though, the sleepover becomes a rite of passage, a faux ritual wherein the individual rejects the group in search for a personal connection, some sort of half-lurid gratification. So the goal becomes to break from conformity, to break from the confines of annoying peers and find something else.
The soulful, confusing, idealistic alcohol-infused journeys are laid out before the viewers in an overlapping melange of scenes, one the extension of the other, if not in content, then in spirit. And they blend well enough to feel accommodating and not too much so that they lose their individuality. Whether it’s Rob’s search for the perfect girl he met for a second in the supermarket, or Maggie’s craving for a loose and spirited pool boy, or Claudia’s attempt to integrate herself in a local high school clique, or Scott’s drive to find an ignored high school crush, or any of the other smaller side tales peppered throughout the movie, they fit the mellow and introspective frame of the wider story.
By the time it takes its final turns, the movie becomes a shameless exercise in wish-fulfillment, but it stands out because of the pacing and the familiarity of the experience. I would argue that’s part of the myth, the good guys and girls escaping the maze of misfits and mistimings and getting their due. And by ‘good’ I only really mean the protagonists, although the movie does imply that they are the principled ones who make choices to define them, usually in contrast to someone around them who just go for the romantic/sexual jugular. Mitchell’s achievement was that he made me root for all of them and anyone’s enjoyment of the movie will hinge to some degree on this. Not that it’s hard to like the dreamy-eyed, the naive, the brave/shy, the romantic, but it’s also a bit on the nose.
Going back to my not-quite-sexual fetish, upon further reflection I would say it is defined by the spirit of the movie (book), more than by its setting. TMofAS isn’t set in a school, but it has that glitter of bubbling, life-affirming craziness of youth associated with it. Important to me is that it stays some distance away from being overly dramatic and too ridiculously serious in tone or that it does not simply perpetuate some of the common tropes of high school movies.
Mitchell’s Myth is just a great throwback to a kind of simpler time, set, like It Follows, in an undefined past where technology did not rule our teenage minds. It’s pure fantasy.