Not a single moment rings false in "The Myth of the American Sleepover," the quietly observant, gently insightful feature debut from writer-director David Robert Mitchell.
What's amazing is that Mitchell has taken a genre that's overly familiar - the all-night teen dramedy - and makes it feel refreshing and new. He also makes it look effortless: By assembling a cast of unknowns, some of whom had never acted before, he creates a warm aura of authenticity and naturalism. Rather than seeming stiff, these kids simply feel real.
Mitchell is clearly paying homage to "American Graffiti," both in structure and tone, and has similarly set it in the place of his own youth, suburban Detroit. But "Myth" never lapses into parody. It's too earnest for that, it has more substantial plans. And rather than invoking a specific era the way George Lucas' film did, Mitchell's movie could take place at any time; these kids don't have cell phones or flat-screen TVs, but one character wears pajamas from Victoria's Secret's ubiquitous Pink line.
The approach makes "Myth" even more accessible for viewers, regardless of age. Young people now can watch it and see themselves, without a drop of irony or condescension; adults, meanwhile, can long nostalgically for an adolescence they may only wish they'd actually experienced.
At the high school track and the community pool, the grocery store and the dance studio, Mitchell follows several characters as they prepare for and attend a series of parties and sleepovers. "Myth" takes place in that wistful time when summer's about to end and a new school year's about to begin. There's a hazy energy that lulls you in, a leisurely pace to the dialogue. Potentially big moments like a first kiss or the revelation of a hidden crush are handled in the same low-key, intimate way as a secret cigarette or a bike ride down the street.
Maggie (standout Claire Sloma) is the movie's sassy, rebellious flirt; her sidekick is the sweet, shy Beth (Annette DeNoyer). Together they navigate these final days before their freshman year in high school with a mixture of wonder, awkwardness and bravado.
Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is the newcomer at school, a sophomore who's dating a senior. This makes her the target of bad-girl Janelle (Shayla Curran), who's at once envious and curious. Claudia is one of several girls who are invited to Janelle's sleepover, where the activities include a game of Ouija and too much cheap, red wine straight out of the bottle.
Rob (Marlon Morton) is on the lookout for a beautiful and mysterious blonde he spotted while shopping with his mom at the supermarket earlier that day. He ends up at another sleepover with a bunch of similarly horny, immature dudes whose idea of trouble includes eggs and toilet paper.
Finally, there's Scott (Brett Jacobsen), who's home from college and at a crossroads. He's not sure he wants to return following a bad breakup, and the memory of a set of pretty twins he knew from high-school drama productions leaves him longing for a missed romance.
You can feel the yearning in every frame - the angst, the need to belong, to be understood and loved - but also the restless desire to grow up fast and prove yourself. Mitchell finds a balance that's just right in juggling all these emotions and presenting them believably in screen. His little movie is pretty much perfect in depicting youthful imperfection.
"The Myth of the American Sleepover," an IFC Entertainment release, is not rated but contains teen smoking and drinking and language. Running time: 93 minutes. Four stars out of four.