'As You Are': Sundance Review

As You Are still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Smells like teen spirit.

Owen Campbell, Charlie Heaton and Amandla Stenberg play the three points of an adolescent triangle in this grunge-era story filtered through a police investigation.

When news of Kurt Cobain's death is heard over a car radio in As You Are, the central character freaks, bolting from the vehicle for air. The anger, pain and solitude that coursed through so many of the tragic grunge hero's lyrics make the mention not just a marker of the film's early '90s setting, but an echo of factors that keep this melancholy youth drama's relationship triangle drawing together and pulling apart. First-time writer-director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte's plotting could be more muscular, but the film shades its confused tangle of friendship, love and desire with atmosphere, intimacy and a lingering sense of outsider yearning.

What it needs is a more meaningful title — without the Nirvana song that inspired it, this one just sounds generic. The selling point that should help the movie find an audience on streaming and VOD platforms, however, is the lived-in performances of its head-turning young cast.

Jack, a skateboarding high school loner who doesn't fit any of the approved small-town molds, is played by Owen Campbell with a quiet need almost too timid to be expressed. As Mark, the rebellious son of a macho disciplinarian, Charlie Heaton's mix of dangerous charisma and vulnerability often evokes the young River Phoenix. And Amandla Stenberg (the lovely, sacrificial Rue from the first Hunger Games movie, all grown up) brings alert watchfulness but also an understated fragility to Sarah, the trio's most grounded member.

A gunshot is heard after we see two figures walking into the woods in rural New York at the start of the movie. Cut to the first in a series of grainy police interrogation videos that fragment the action. A clue to what happened lies in the simple fact that one of the key characters is absent from these interviews, though right up to the conclusion, Joris-Peyrafitte and co-writer Madison Harrison shroud the specifics in an air of mystery.

Jack lives with his single mother Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson, great to see you), whom he treats with matching quotas of eye-rolling and affection. Karen is starting to get serious in a relationship with Tom (Scott Cohen), a security guard and former Marine, so she's happy when shy Jack immediately clicks with Tom's son Mark, who's cooler and more self-assured. "Things were good," says Jack, about the period after Tom and Mark moved in with them. "We felt like a family."

The new friends smoke weed, talk music and start cutting class together. When they get targeted for random violence by bored thugs at a local diner, Sarah comes to their aid. A smart girl of color, she's no more at home than they are in the white-bread suburban town.

As Jack, Mark and Sarah become a unit, uncomplicated in the beginning by sexual tension, they develop an easy camaraderie and correspondingly relaxed physical rapport. The dudes mostly just want to get drunk or high during sleepy afternoons together, while Sarah does her best to stay on track with her studies. Because it's what guys like him do, Tom teaches them all how to handle a gun.

Mark nudges Jack to ask Sarah to the prom, and when he confesses he's never even kissed a girl, Mark gives him a full demonstration. They laugh off the kiss as a drunken joke, but the seed of sexual attraction has been planted. They do their best to ignore it, and the director nicely underplays the homoerotic strain, but the casual tactile moments Jack and Mark share together are beautifully observed.

When word reaches their parents that it's been three days since the boys were at school, Tom explodes, crossing a line with Karen by suggesting that the Marines would be the best place for Jack. Having chosen to be blind to his aggressive nature up to that point, Karen asks him to leave when he starts slapping Mark around after he finds the boys watching a porn video with Sarah.

With Mark pulled from school and yanked out of the picture, Jack and Sarah become a passionless couple. But Mark rolls back into their lives, bumping Sarah to the sidelines in developments recounted as the investigating detective (John Scurti) pieces together what happened in the woods and the events leading up to that day.

Joris-Peyrafitte, 23, studied at New York's Bard College under Kelly Reichardt and So Yong Kim (both of whom also have new films at Sundance this year). Their influences can perhaps be discerned in the stripped-down exposition, narrative ellipses and probing close-ups.

The storytelling skills on display are not yet fully mature, and truth be told, the too-leisurely drama seems less rooted in any kind of personal experience than crafted around a studied tradition of indie screen angst. But the relationships feel deeply etched and honest; the visual compositions are sharp and often interestingly angled, without being overly fussy; and the helmer shows impressive skill at working with actors. Scenes between Campbell and Heaton, in particular, are quietly affecting as the characters dance around their complicated feelings for one another.

Joris-Peyrafitte also had a hand in the music (sharing credit with Patrick Higgins), and while some might find the movie over-scored, the dueling elements of acoustic instrumentals with brooding electronic sounds subtly mirror the conflicting forces at play in the drama. As You Are is a solid debut that announces a talent to watch.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Charlie Heaton, Owen Campbell, Amandla Stenberg, Mary Stuart Masterson, Scott Cohen, John Scurti

Production companies: Votiv Films, Heretical Reason Productions, in association with Buffalo 8
Director: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

Screenwriters: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, Madison Harrison
Producers: Brent Stiefel, Sean Patrick Burke, Joseph Mastantuono, Justin Lothrop

Executive producers: Todd Stiefel, Diana Stiefel, Charles Stiefel, Daneen Stiefel
Director of photography: Caleb Heymann

Production designer: Audrey Turner
Costume designer: Miyako Belizzi

Music: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, Patrick Higgins
Editor: Abbi Jutkowitz

Casting: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy
Sales: WME

Not rated, 105 minutes