A promising and impressively self-assured debut for 23-year-old filmmaker Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, “As You Are” is crafted with the confidence and skill of a veteran, but also the youthful eye of someone not far removed from his protagonists. His sensitively wrought teen-angst drama has a timeless quality that makes its early-’90s setting feel simultaneously specific and universal. Far from an easy sell commercially, the pic deserves careful handling by a specialty distrib capable of connecting with younger auds bound to see themselves reflected in the characters.
While Hollywood happily caters to teens in order to cash in at the box office, members of that age group are rarely depicted on screen with the sort of dignity and respect Joris-Peyrafitte and his co-writer Madison Harrison afford them here. Focused on the friendship between two high-school boys and the female classmate who both unites and divides them, the well-observed drama is somewhat hampered by a “True Detective”-style police interrogation and flashback structure which turn what should be natural progressions for the characters into plot twists.
The investigation begins with Jack (Owen Campbell), a good-natured kid who lives in a nameless suburban town with his single mom Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson) and has trouble making friends. That changes when his mom starts dating Tom (Scott Cohen), a former Marine and the single dad of Mark (Charlie Heaton), a Kurt Cobain-worshiping delinquent who strikes up an immediate and powerful bond with Jack. (Pic’s title is a nod to Nirvana track “Come As You Are.”) That bond becomes inseparable when Karen and Tom move in together and Jack and Mark bunk up as brothers.
Both outcasts in their small town, the two are attacked by a trio of bullies outside a local diner. That’s when they catch the attention of Sarah (Amandla Stenberg), a good girl from a stable family who transforms their duo into a trio in no time. Skipping school, smoking pot and dancing around questions of more-than-friendship, the three pals simply enjoy being teenagers — but their reverie is threatened by Tom’s controlling and increasingly violent behavior.
As the story unfolds in lengthy flashbacks between brief bursts of interrogation, suspense mounts over what exactly happened and who is to blame. The victim quickly becomes clear through a process of elimination (only one major character isn’t interrogated), but the exact crime and motive remain a mystery for as long as possible. Unfortunately, the build-up doesn’t lead to a particularly rich or unpredictable payoff, and that sense of disappointment may be heightened if viewers know some key character developments ahead of time — the sort of developments that might need to be revealed if the film scores a theatrical release.
Still, it would be a shame for the film to miss a chance in theaters, given the beautiful craftsmanship on display. Joris-Peyrafitte has assembled a relatively young crew all working in top form, from Caleb Heymann’s gorgeous lensing to Abbi Jutkowitz’s crisp cutting. Production designer Audrey Turner and costume designer Miyako Belizzi help create a strong sense of time and place without giving in to nostalgic tendencies — a trap the film dutifully avoids in every department. And Joris-Peyrafitte’s own original score with Patrick Higgins adds considerable texture throughout.
The actors, a mix of relative newcomers and screen veterans, similarly rise to the occasion across the board. Campbell, whose excellent arc on “The Americans” looks in retrospect like a warm-up to this part, nails the role of a shy kid who hasn’t yet found his place in the world, while Brit thesp Heaton seems to channel River Phoenix in moments (the early films of Gus Van Sant feel like a key touchstone here, as does Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge”) as the more extroverted but also emotionally tortured of the two. Stenberg, best known as a victim of the first “Hunger Games,” has blossomed into a captivating leading lady and her effortless charisma should lead to bigger parts in the future. Masterson and Cohen make the most of smaller roles, going from an unforced sexual chemistry to wrenching scenes of domestic strife.