Sleepover (1996) (DVD)

Tonight, anything can happen. Tomorrow, nothing will be the same.

A lesser-known entry in the independent filmmaking boom of the mid-1990s, Sleepover is writer-director John Sullivan’s tribute to the Darwinian nature of growing up. The film celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, so therefore it’s time for a new DVD. Unconventionally grim for a teen movie, Sleepover gets a chance to draw in a new audience, thanks to the folks at LifeSize Entertainment.

It’s summer in the Connecticut suburbs, and the youth have nothing to do. After a day of languishing on the beach, two girls decide to have a sleepover. After some seemingly harmless flirting, the girls, Megan (Megan Shand) and Brooke (Heather Casey), decide to rendezvous later that night with three boys, Sean (Karl Giant), Mark (Michael Albanese), and Ken (Ken Miles). After the sun sets, they’re off, with a little sister Anne (Shannon Berry) in tow. Under the stars and the moonlight, with no rules or parents in sight, these six troublesome teens are on their own. How much can they get away with? How far will they go? It’s going to be a long night.

“I know this character. I know all these characters.”—John Sullivan

One of the first images we see at the opening of Sleepover is a race. Three boys start out on the beach, run toward the water, and then swim out into the ocean. Along they way, they splash water onto three girls sunbathing on a dock. Immediately following the race, the three break out into an argument over who won. What we don’t see are the rules of this race, or just what they were racing toward. Perhaps not even they know this. As the argument winds down, a boy catches the eye of one of the girls. Rather than smile and wink flirtatiously, they instead stare at each other curiously, like two predators circling each other in the wild. And so the tone of the movie is set.

Although Sleepover presents a lot of teenage girl-boy heartbreak, this is mostly a guy’s movie, depicting life from a young male’s point of view. The three guy protagonists are filled with frustration and rage. As Mark, Michael Albanese is a ticking time bomb. He desires independence like nothing else. He wants out of this small town, away from his family, and away from anyone who tells him what to do or what to say. As a result, he’s more or less a monster. He’s so desperate to prove himself and make his own way in the world that he lashes out at everyone. He’s determined to be better than everyone else, but he does not do this by working hard and achieving his goals. Instead, he’s shooting for instant gratification. He wants to prove himself and control everyone else by throwing punches and barking orders until he gets whatever he wants. Albanese rules every scene he’s in, simply by throwing around his frustrated manliness.

Meanwhile, Sean struggles with these same feelings, but he still lives under Mark’s shadow. With a little bit of show-off editing, we learn that he’s seeking a father figure, either consciously or subconsciously. Because of Mark’s aggressive leadership, Sean’s found someone to follow. But as the night goes on, and as Mark gets more and more out of control, Sean has to learn to stand up for himself and make his own way in the world, instead of just following someone else.

The third male in the group also seeks independence, but in a different way. Ken Miles portrays one of the few black kids in town, and has to deal with racial issues, including other characters’ casual use of the controversial “N” word. He too goes through a journey of sorts, seeing how much he can get away with when alone with a girl. But in the end, he too has to prove himself when confronted with questions of his identity.

Although the film places its emphasis on the male characters, each of the girls gets a moment to shine. Megan Shand portrays that one girl we all used to know. She’s the one who is beautiful and kind, but also quiet and slightly mysterious. Sean is fascinated with her—if only he could say or do that one thing to get attention. Shand portrays the character with equal parts braininess and innocence. She can spell “liaison” without having to think about it, and yet she’s hesitant about sex, insisting that it only be done “when the moment is right.” Her parting with Sean at dawn is a heartbreaking one, where her not wanting to be unkind just makes things worse for him.

By contrast, Heather Casey plays Brooke as the “wild girl.” It’s her idea to sneak out, she provides the illegal substances, and she’s the one Mark has his eyes on. But just as his testosterone-drenched rage has him out to control everyone else, she uses her own budding sexuality to control him. Their back-and-forth mind games carry the middle portion of the film, with neither one really staking a claim as the winner. But it’s some interesting interplay as it is.

As the sixth member of our little gang of upstarts, Anne gets the least screen time, but she too gets her moments in the spotlight. The character is an eager one, who wants to experience what her sister and the other older kids do when they run off at night. Seeing it first hand, though, is not the adventurous thrill ride she expected. The disc’s commentary reveals that although Shannon Berry was one of the youngest members of the cast, she was one of the most experienced actresses there, having studied at a highbrow performing arts school. She knows when to give the character an intense curiosity, and when to pull back and show the fear of what she’s gotten into.

As a series of coming-of-age vignettes told over the course of one night, the film succeeds. But not everything about this sleepover is a party. At its conclusion, the script becomes a little too ambitious. One of the characters pulls out an out-of-nowhere surprise that doesn’t seem consistent with him, or with the overall tone of the movie. Even farther, the concluding moments veer close to preachy, sentimental territory. What once felt real and heartfelt, suddenly feels forced and clichéd. I can see why a first-time filmmaker would want to take that extra step and push the conflict as far as it can go, but in this case the conclusion doesn’t match the rest of the film.

The picture quality on the disc reveals the movie’s age and low budget, with overall softness and some grain. These flaws are never enough to ruin the image on screen, though. Sound varies as well, with dialogue sometimes distorted depending on what scene it is and where the characters are. Because this is no doubt due to the low-budget source material, subtitles would have helped get all the lines across to the viewers, but unfortunately there aren’t any.

John Sullivan provides an informative and entertaining commentary, going over the movie’s creation and production in detail. He’s also not hesitant about pointing out its flaws, admitting to viewers that the film was a learning experience both for him and for his young cast. The disc also features Pizza Guys, Sullivan’s short film made during grad school. Although Sullivan shows a lot of technical proficiency in the short, he still had a long way to go as a writer at the time. Pizza Guys ends up quite dull, and nowhere as likable as Sleepover turned out to be.

Despite its flaws, Sleepover is an interesting and well-acted film. For every bit of clichéd life-lesson nonsense, there’s twice as much realistic teen angst and growing up slice-of-life imagery. We recommend a rental.

The Verdict

It’s not perfect, but it’s not guilty either.

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