Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is a social pariah at her high school. The 1960s were perhaps not an easy time for any woman, as evidenced by her mom, an abusive drunk who feels trapped by domesticity, and the townswomen, whose sole occupation seems to be malicious gossip, and the woman who haunts the local swimming pond after having committed suicide there, but Iris has it even worse, an outcast because her weak bladder has earned her the nickname Stinky Pants and is a daily embarrassment.
Luckily, a new girl in town, Maggie (Liana Liberato), seems reluctant to write Iris off just because all the mean girls instruct her to. And because Maggie’s big city mystique is so strong, other people start reconsidering her as well. But Maggie’s hiding some pretty major secrets of her own, and only Iris knows that she’s been lying…for now, anyway. These might still be young girls, but they’re dealing with some pretty hefty life problems, and life isn’t exactly going out of its way to be fair to them.
Martha Stephens’ beautiful movie is a tribute to female friendship and how just one friend can mean the difference between wretched loneliness and validation. Between her mother the kids at school, Iris is cowed by the cruelty, she lives shrunkenly, hunched over, avoiding all and any attention. Maggie is a necessary reminder that there is more than small town Oklahoma. A friend, for Iris, is hope. Hope that life won’t always be like this. If just one other person understands us, life doesn’t feel so alone. Hayward and Liberato serve up terrific performances, not despite their young age but because of it – only when we are teenagers do we believe that now will translate to always. It’s a bleak film that hides a positive message, one that needn’t be heard solely by teenage girls in the 60s, but by anyone who despairs that life will always feel empty. It won’t. Look up to the stars and have faith.
Kevin’s having a bad day. First his teacher, the humourless Mrs. W, busts him for fabricating his family history for an oral presentation (hint: pick something less obvious than best-selling novel The Martian), then he gets caught on camera by the school bully dancing his pants off in the boys’ washroom, and then he gets saved by his mommy/lunch lady in front of the whole cafeteria. Could his day get any worse?
Yes. Yes it can. While Kevin (Maxwell Simkins) and nerdy friend Lewis (Lucas Jaye) are having a sleepover in the backyard, and big sister Clancy (Sadie Stanley) and her friend Mim (Cree Cicchino) are trying to sneak out to a party, their parents Margot (Malin Akerman) and Ron (Ken Marino) are abducted by what witness Lewis can only describe as “ninjas.” But the fact that Margot has left them a series of clues hints at another sort of life, one her family knows nothing about, but these intrepid kids are going to follow them into the city and a whole heap of trouble, all in the name of rescuing their parents.
The Sleepover plays like a kid version of National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code; director Trish Sie serves up some decent action sequences, but the tone and the humour do much to dilute the sense of peril and remains appropriate for family viewing. Ken Marino offers up his particular brand of wimpy wit, but it’s the kids who hog the spotlight. Maxwell Simkins is an especially wonderful addition; his bathroom dance is so charming and well-executed it’s hard to believe he’s bullied for it rather than praised – especially in the age of Tiktok, where this kind of thing would likely turn him into an overnight sensation. Actually, it sort of does anyway: the video posted to tease him goes viral, which is sort of what gets them into this mess.
Casting the right kids is imperative for a movie like this, but The Sleepover gets it right. It’s way too easy for a movie like this to go sideways, falling prey to either inauthentic child performances or an overly trite script, but Sie and screenwriter Sarah Rothschild manage a delicate balance of broad humour and credible adventure in crafting a fun ride fit for the whole family.