Cast your minds back, film fans, to that golden era long, long ago when "13 Going on 30" and "Mean Girls" ruled the box office. Those were the days, when "like" was never used as a verb and all anyone had to worry about was shoes, hair products and being popular. Now we've got a cute boy who's really a spider and some angry fat guy telling us what a spider our president is.
It's all gotten so, like, heavy. Which is why "Sleepover," which could have been titled "Tween Girls," is all the more disappointing. Just when the big screen could use an injection of frothy, giggly girl power -- all in the name of a covert feminist message, of course -- "Sleepover" squanders that promise with a blah story and even bigger bummer of a take-home message. It wants us to believe that being popular and getting the cutest guy in school really is the key to happiness. Like, how totally last century is that?
Julie Corky (Alexa Vega) has just graduated from junior high school and her world is falling apart. Her best friend, Hannah (Mika Boorem), is moving to Canada, her mom treats her like she's still a little kid, she has no hope of entering high school with the flank protection of the cool clique, and she's nursing a hopeless crush on Steve Phillips (Sean Faris), a skateboarding hottie who doesn't know she's alive. As Hannah tells Julie, they and their equally unpopular best friends live in a "suck universe" where the wrong hairstyle, shoes or body shape spells certain doom -- in their case banishment to eating lunch next to the high school's dumpsters for four years. But their fate changes suddenly when the cool girls challenge the dorks to a scavenger hunt. Whoever wins gets to eat lunch by the fountain, where the teen elite meet to eat.
It's never quite clear what motivates the chief cool girl to throw down this particular gauntlet to Julie and her friends, which is just one of the movie's myriad improbabilities. But director Joe Nussbaum (who made a semi-legendary short film a few years ago called "George Lucas in Love") makes sure the action never stops long enough for the audience to ponder such questions. "Sleepover" is the movie equivalent of a three-minute pop song of the slickest, most bubble gum variety; in this case it seems to have been constructed of equal parts: "Heathers," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Pretty in Pink." The film features a few winning performances. Vega, of the "Spy Kids" franchise, delivers a believable performance and even engages in some "Spy Kids"-esque stunts, and Kallie Flynn Childress is adorable as the most generously built of Julie's pals. But for the most part the acting in "Sleepover" consists of pursing super-glossed lips and delivering lines like "Let's dominate" and "Steve is so plush" in voices that resemble Minnie Mouse on helium.
Some stick-in-the-mud types might also take issue with the woolly-headed moral of "Sleepover's" frenetic story. In "Mean Girls" the Lindsay Lohan character found strength through solidarity with her sisters and schoolmates. Here Julie simply learns how to win by any means necessary at a game whose tenets are never questioned. She gets the guy, she gets the lunch spot, and the cruel realities of high school status stay firmly in place. Come to think of it, the "Sleepover" girls could do with a visit from that angry fat guy. He could so totally rock their world -- in terms of the underlying contradictions of its political structure, of course -- and you've got to admit, he's plush.
Sleepover (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for thematic elements involving teen dating, some sensuality and language.