A scene from the movie "The Myth of the American Sleepover." (James Laxton / IFC Films )
Many films about teenagers focus on a singular big moment or decision, like an unexpected pregnancy, college admission or the prom. But it's the intimately lyrical moments — riding bikes at dusk on a summer night, the butterfly excitement of casually-on-purpose running into a certain someone, the loneliness of feeling awkward at a party — that make up "The Myth of the American Sleepover."
The feature debut of writer-director David Robert Mitchell, 36, the film follows a set of high school and early college-age kids through one night in their nondescript suburb as summer winds down. Intertwining four main plotlines with multiple sub-stories, no single strand or actor takes precedence as the storytelling glides from moment to moment. The night itself, the idea that just about anything could happen even if nothing does, remains central.
"I was definitely very inspired by 'American Graffiti' and 'Dazed and Confused' and there's something really fun and magical about everything happening in this short time period," Mitchell said during a recent interview in Los Angeles, where he lives. "I wanted to do very simple stories about growing up and first love and liked the idea of doing the multi-character thing. And, in a way, particularly with this film, it adds up to a dream-like quality — night happens and all these things happen, the sun comes up and it's over."
Shot in 28 days in summer 2008, using some 40 locations near the suburban Detroit neighborhood where Mitchell grew up, "Myth" premiered at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize for best ensemble cast.
Then it played the prestigious International Critics Week at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the first American film chosen for the section since 2005. Producer Adele Romanski was also nominated for a Spirit Award for the film, which becomes available on video-on-demand July 27 and opens in Los Angeles on July 29.
Mitchell decided not to cast any recognizable talent, out of a concern that a familiar face would pull viewers out of the story. He used mostly Michigan locals, some acting for the first time, and finding the actors took the better part of a year, filling 39 parts not including extras.
The production was made on the slimmest of shoestrings — it couldn't even qualify for Michigan state tax credits because its budget didn't meet the required minimum of $50,000. The crew, some of whom were working on their first production, slept on air mattresses in an unfurnished house. The filmmakers got permission to insert their own floats and a dance team into a local parade rather than stage one themselves, the crew scurrying to keep up as they moved along the parade route.
Following the film's success on the festival circuit, "Myth" may create a new myth of the little project that could, the film's quiet ambition paying off in ways personal and professional for its makers.
"I sort of have his racket going where people will take me out to dinner or whatever because they think that I can tell them how to do something really tiny," cracked Romanski. "But it's so specific when you have that little money how you choose to spend it. It's almost more how you manage to do stuff without spending that's really specific. There is no magical way. You can't always call the local Fourth of July parade committee and ask them if you can insert a float or two."
Added Mitchell, "It's almost thinking of crazy ideas and then following through on them and making them work."
Mitchell wrote the first draft for "Myth" in 2002, around the time he graduated from film school at Florida State University. Having moved to Los Angeles, working as an editor on commercials and movie marketing materials, in early 2006 he sent two scripts to Romanski, whom he knew from FSU.
One was for a short film and the other was "Myth." She decided they should make the feature. The duo is already working on another project together, though rather than the sprawling cast of "Myth," Mitchell's new script, called "Ella Walks the Beach," focuses closely on one character. Given the observant intimacy of "Myth," that new specificity is no surprise, as the events portrayed may be small but are no less meaningful.
"To me, it's what happens most of the time when you're a kid," Mitchell said. "You're going out at night, and bad stuff happens, but it doesn't happen every single night. I think sometimes the more memorable things are the simple things.… To me, what's really interesting about the movie are the quiet spaces in between even the little bits of plot point that are there."
"A lot of those teen moments are still there," added Romanski. "Kids are drinking, they're going to parties, they're trying to hook up, chasing this boy or that girl. It's a lot of the same conventions of the genre but done a little different, maybe a little slower. It's subtle."