Review: As You Are (Joris-Peyrafitte, 2016) – Sundance 2016

asyouare

The festival (and cinema in general) is heavy on coming-of-age tales; As You Are (whose title is a reference to the Nirvana song “Come As You Are“) brings my Sundance tally this year to four. In the universe of coming-of-age tales (and it is indeed an entire universe), director and co-writer Miles Joris-Peyrafitte‘s feature debut is made in the more traditional vein, filled with angst and tension, joy and exhilaration.

Shy Jack (Owen Campbell) and charismatic Mark (Charlie Heaton) meet when Jack’s mom Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Mark’s dad Tom (Scott Cohen) start dating. The fast friends soon become roommates when Karen and Tom move in together. Evening out their duo is a third, a girl from the right side of the tracks. Sarah (Amandla Stenberg), who is from a supportive (read: “unbroken”) family and gets good grades, takes up with the two stoners after interrupting a group of bullies beating them up outside a diner.

In the beginning, all is rosy. The kind of rosiness that, as a viewer, I watch with dread, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In this case, we know for sure that the other shoe will come because the narrative is framed around a police interrogation and a related series of flashbacks that serve as the interrogees’ answers. Only one person is missing from the interrogations: Mark.

As You Are is far from perfect and bears some marks of its creators’ youth (Joris-Peyrafitte is only 23 and I would surmise that co-writer Madison Harrison, a childhood friend, is of a similar age). For one, the interrogations are an awkward device to achieve the flashbacks that lend the movie its suspense. Its narrative burdens (e.g. providing the relationships’ context and evolution) force the scenes into an awkward incredibility. Would a detective–with the patience and kindliness of a therapist, by the way–truly want his suspects to start from the beginning in order to understand the history of their friendships? When investigating a potential murder case? Understandably, the actors, who are otherwise outstanding, flounder under the contrivance.

The ending (which is also the beginning) is the film’s other major weak point. It is dramatic, violent, mysterious. Or, more specifically, it is melodramatic, tritely violent, abruptly open-ended. The possible explanations for Mark’s death all seem, again, implausible. That is, they are plausible as newspaper headlines but not as a continuation of the story we’ve been told. Both of these devices–the interrogations and the sudden and ambiguous ending–seem essential to the film’s structure and mood but also undermine its otherwise thoughtful authenticity.

That said, there was much I enjoyed about As You Are. All three of the young actors give commendable performances, particularly Owen Campbell, who so beautifully evokes the sweet and actually not-at-all-painful shyness of a kid who likes, and wants to be liked. The relationships, too, are true to that particular ecstasy of youth without seeming nostalgic, familiar, or too “emo.” For better or worse, it’s a movie that takes its characters seriously, without irony, distance, or superiority. That angle in a story about teens can also veer into the territory of melodrama, and this film does once in a while, but it also achieves a rare authenticity.

It is also refreshing to see a parent-teen relationship (in this case between Jack and his mother) that isn’t a rehash of the age-old conflict between rebel and authority (though we get plenty of that stereotype between Mark and his father). Finally, the costuming accurately mimics that unremarkable 90s look–not in a loud, remember-this? way, but in a way that makes you wonder at first why everyone is dressed so unattractively.

As You Are is a promising start for the insanely young Joris-Peyrafitte. With a bit of cleaning up, I don’t doubt he’ll make some very watchable movies (à la James Ponsoldt) down the line.

(Check out the Q&A below. Some good insight into the filmmakers’ creative decisions and an unexpected answer to the question of why Sarah’s parents are white.)

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