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Sundance 2016: "As You Are"

Set in the time when Kurt Cobain was a living prophet of teenage angst, “As You Are" is the story of a bond between two young, grungy men. The two meet when their parents do; Jack (Owen Campbell) was a loner until his mom (Mary Stuart Masterson) introduced him to pot-smoking, more rebellious Mark (Charlie Heaton), the son of her boyfriend Tom (Scott Cohen). Contrary to the animosity usually seen in films about such a connection, the two connect quickly as unofficial stepbrothers. They have no angst towards each other, and share their passion for music (especially Kurt Cobain, who inspired the title, and whose death is mourned in one scene). They explore the world outside the confines of school, like swimming in the quarry, or smoking pot together with their friend Sarah (Amandla Sternberg). 

Unexpectedly, Mark and Jack's close bond becomes sexual. The comfort they have with each other translates to their physical intimacy, sharing a kiss or laying on each other delicately. Their friendship is fractured when their parents split up, the unspoken intimacy they have a hanging question between the two. 

In his impressive feature debut, co-writer/director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte tells this story as a mystery, intercutting between grainy video testimonials about the events shown in its cinematic form. We aren't told what the purpose is for a long time, aside from a beginning shot from a bird's eye view of two people walking in the forest, followed by a gunshot. It creates the feeling of waiting for other shoe to drop, essentially, but Joris-Peyrafitte is able to make this narrative pay off, even if it leaves viewers antsier during its more low-key moments. 

In his first feature film, Joris-Peyrafitte has an ambitious approach, sharing the progression of Mark and Jack's bond with confident, effective pacing. In time, "As You Are" settles in as a gripping epic, with characters in thorough arcs, while occupying a specific place with intricate existences. For a debut, it even earns its festival-risky 110-minute running time. 

Caleb Heymann's cinematography is one of the film's most immediately fascinating aspects, and takes hold throughout the movie with a dramatic yet low-key usage of lights, or peeks from the outside into the very literal windows of their domestic situations. As with the way he uses the testimonials, Joris-Peyrafitte's effective vision can be too forceful, wanting to tell the audience an intriguing story but in a somewhat contrived form. His distinct use of slow-motion has the same effect, where slightly stretching moments from the script are nonetheless executed with gripping technique (such as when a very confused Jack finds a sex toy and beats a car with it, our view from inside, underneath the windshield). 

"As You Are" is the kind of film you want to bump into at a festival. It's kind of shaggy but determined, fueled by a story it feels deep at its core, ready to tell it with dedication to getting many things exactly right. A promising debut featuring breakthrough acting talent across the board, it isn't afraid to take chances. It isn't even worried about not having the Nirvana music that causes the entire story to have a specific 1990s backdrop. It’s too confident for that. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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