The shadow of John Hughes hangs heavy over this latest bubblegum movie for young girls; Elisa Bell’s script is extraordinarily reminiscent of “Sixteen Candles,” in particular (though “Ferris Bueller” pops up in some respects, too). But the age difference in the lead characters, as well as far less seamless construction, flat direction from Joe Nussbaum (in his feature debut), and a general slackness in front of the camera suggest that “Sleepover” should instead be thought of as “Fourteen Fizzles.”
The chief character is Julie (Alexa Vega of the “Spy Kids” franchise), a plain Jane just out of junior high whose over-protective mom (Jane Lynch) lets her have a slumber party with three chums after the last day of classes while mom goes out for a night on the town, leaving obtuse dad Jay (Jeff Garlin) and slacker older brother Ren (Sam Huntington) behind as inept chaperones. When Julie’s challenged by blonde chick Staci (Sara Paxton) and her “in” crowd to compete in a scavenger hunt that will require her and her three friends Hannah (Mika Boorem), Yancy (Kallie Flynn Childress) and Farrah (Scout Taylor-Compton) to leave the house despite the fact that’s against her mom’s rules, Hannah–who’s about to move away and anxious, like a female Ferris Bueller, to convince her best bud to take a chance and go for the gold–persuades the timorous girl to take up the gauntlet, especially since one of the assigned tasks involves securing a pair of boxer shorts from Steve (Sean Faris), the hunky upperclassman Julie’s mad about but who’s never even noticed her, and another requires getting hold of the prom crown which Steve will undoubtedly win.
What follows is the kind of predictable chaos familiar from pictures like “Adventures in Babysitting,” along with the obligatory moments of self-accomplishment, reconciliation and puppy love (not just for Julie, but also for chubby Yancy, who links up with a band roadie). Surprisingly, the best bits involve not the predictable attraction that Steve comes to feel for Julie–a plot thread that really doesn’t click, not only because Faris, though blandly handsome, is pretty much a stiff, but because he takes to the girl merely because he spies her skateboarding, which happens to be one of his own passions–but the growing sibling bond between Julie and Ren, who goes through hoops to keep up the illusion she’s home so their parents won’t discover her escapade. It helps that Huntington is an ingratiating performer, even if he is encouraged to mug too much. On the other hand, some of the shtick involving the girls’ outing is in rather poor taste (Julie links up with her junior high teacher for a tryst in a bar as part of the hunt, for example, and there’s an unsavory sequence in which she drools as she watches Steve undress to take a shower) while other bits are just bad slapstick (everything involving a doofus security cop played by Steve Carell, who’s a very unfunny substitute for the character Jeffrey Jones played in “Bueller,” and the pathetic fixing-the-water-faucet business the hapless Garlin is stuck with for the entire movie). The prize attached to the hunt, moreover–a place in the high school’s outdoor cafeteria area among the “popular” tables rather than beside the dumpster–seems a sad encouragement of the cliquish mentality of teen life that most pictures of this sort at least give lip service to condemning. Moreover, the introduction of a trio of geeks trailing after Julie is an unforgivably bald imitation of the material featuring Anthony Michael Hall and his cronies in “Candles.” In short, there’s a slipshod, second-hand quality to the script, and Nussbaum isn’t dextrous enough to give it freshness or style. A good deal of the clumsiness comes from the lack of smoothness in the performances. Vega and Boorem are agreeable enough, but apart from Huntington and Garlin, most of the others are pretty amateurish. Evan Peters’ eye-bulging turn as Hall’s surrogate is particularly gruesome. Technically the picture is mediocre, the sort of slapdash production that might be tolerable if broadcast on a family-friendly cable network but decidedly grubby-looking in the theatre.
“Sleepover” is one of the least snazzy, most earthbound entries in the ever-growing series of Cinderella stories for the early-teen female audience that have proliferated of late (even Julie refers to the experiences covered in it as her “Cinderella night”). It might prove a popular draw at slumber parties six months from now, but even its target audience should find it a snoozer on the big screen.