"Sleepover" is a scary byproduct of its time. What two decades ago might have been a tolerable, maybe even fun, adolescent romp about four 14-year-old suburban girls dreaming of being cool high-school freshmen is now a sort of cutthroat game show between two teams of upbeat teens who spend one night competing in a scavenger hunt. No one thought to call it "Cheer Factor," but you might leave wondering what happened to plain-old pillow fights.
It's the last day of middle school and the first day of summer vacation, and to celebrate, Julie (Alexa Vega, of "Spy Kids") invites three friends over for a slumber party. She's planned a super simple, way-fun night of makeup, pizza, and pretending to be the Spice Girls. (1996 cheese crashes this movie's 2004.) The innocent fun comes to a halt when Stacie (Sara Paxton), the movie's prissy resident evil, darkens Julie's doorstep.
These two used to be friends, then Stacie went seriously blond, employing the same feathering technique Reese Witherspoon used in those "Legally Blonde" movies, forming her own quartet engineered for maximum between-class tyranny. Unbeknownst to everyone, including her own crew, Stacie's just been dumped before a big high school dance. With nothing better to do, Stacie proposes her clique square off against Julie's friends to procure such trinkets as the boxer shorts of the boy Julie thinks is "so plush."
The winners get to eat their high school lunches by a coveted fountain. The losers have to eat by the dumpsters. The stakes sounded awfully low to me. The fountain looks pretty small. And will they eat there in rain and snow, and when 100 percent humidity threatens to do Britney-knows-what to their hair?
Thank goodness, before she moves away to Vancouver, Julie's best friend Hannah (Mika Boorem) is around to remind us of what's really important. "We're not talking about a lunch spot," she says, "we're talking about who you're gonna be." And with that, Julie and her friends are off, sneaking out of the house and right by Julie's jovial dad (Jeff Garlin, of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), using her older brother (Sam Huntington) as cover, outsmarting the neighborhood rent-a-cop (professional jester Steve Carell), and bopping around in Yancy's (Kallie Flynn Childress) Smart car.
As an up-to-the-minute representation of the specifics of the teen universe, "Sleepover" lacks authenticity. Screenwriter Elisa Bell is the tin-eared grown-up responsible for the imperative dialogue ("Follow!" "Let's dominate!" "Let's scope!"), and she's either been hanging out in the wrong mall or using a friend's questionable kid as a slanguage coach. Are these girls or Power Rangers? The director is Joe Nussbaum, and he directs most of the scenes as though they were cartoons, nightmares, or -- where Julie's uptight mother (Jane Lynch) is concerned -- both.
Have the movies ever been as rife with so many girls desperate with ambition to be popular? The multiplexes haven't been jammed with this many repetitively single-minded portrayals of young people since the gangsta craze of the early 1990s. If Hollywood really wanted to blow some minds, it would find a way to mate the two niches. How about "Menace II Sorority"?
Directed by: Joe Nussbaum
Written by: Elisa Bell
Starring: Alexa Vega, Mika Boorem, Sara Paxton, Steve Carell, Jane Lynch, and Jeff Garlin
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 97 minutes
PG (teen dating, sensuality, language) **