“Was there a turning point in your relationship?” a police interrogator asks protagonist Jack (Owen Campbell) in the compelling teen drama-mystery As You Are.
“You’re not gonna believe me,” he replies with a smirk.
That turning point, which had nothing to do with the actual relationship at the heart of the film, was the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994; the impact it has on the lead character here is a revealing insight into the world of a teenager who has yet to come to terms with the world outside his own.
It’s details like this that raises As You Are, which was directed and co-written by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, far above the realm of the usual teen drama. The three central characters here are so well-written and portrayed that they feel like lived-in personas, and evoke a strong sense of time and place for anyone that can remember either the 90s grunge era or that particular time in their own life.
What makes this even more unusual is that writer-director Joris-Peyrafitte was only 23 when he made the film, and just a toddler during the time it depicts.
Campbell’s Jack is a skateboarder and high school loner who lives in a small rural home with his single mother (Mary Stuart Masterson). Their lives face a big change when mom’s new boyfriend (Scott Cohen) moves in with them, bringing teenage son Mark (Charlie Heaton) along with him.
(Side note: it’s great to see Masterson, star of some 80s & 90s classics who hasn’t been glimpsed on the big screen in over a decade, back in action. Her role isn’t the prime focus, but Masterson is as appealing here as she always was, and hopefully this signals a comeback.)
For Owen, the change isn’t a bad one: he and Mark quickly become the best of friends, and they even make a gal pal in straight-A student Sarah (Amandla Stenberg), who joins the pair on their school-skipping excursions.
The grungy Mark might be a bad influence – he smokes pot, gets into fights, and keeps his pals outside of the classroom – but Owen seems genuinely happy with him; Campbell’s subtle performance suggests a lot bubbling under the surface, from a young man skating through his teen years to one coming to terms with his sexuality.
Because of a framing device that involves most of the main characters being interrogated by police, we know something bad is about to happen; it’s a cheap way to generate suspense, but it works. At least the interrogation scenes, which recreate 4:3 shot-on-video look, feel authentic.
The film’s climax is an odd one: we’re expecting the worst, and then something bad happens. Psych! It was just a fakeout. Then the real bad thing happens, but it’s ambiguous and refuses to solve the mystery the rest of the film had been building to. Still, despite feeling redundant, it’s an unusual and unexpected way to wrap things up.
As You Are is incredibly well-directed for a debut feature, and especially impressive given the age of the director it’s coming from. It’s a gripping and evocative study that recreates a specific time in its protagonist’s lives with extraordinary detail, and will hold special appeal to those in the audience that can relate.