The outline of Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s As You Are is certainly well-worn, but this coming-of-age film nonetheless stands out for its nuanced sense of detail and the sympathy it extends to its main characters. Throughout, Joris-Peyrafitte gives careful and specific articulation to how seemingly minor changes in one’s surroundings, and the relationships one chooses to invest in, can become major turning points in a vulnerable, adolescent life. The film is also, above all, a striking and affecting expression of the desire, repression, and violence that grips two gay boys who pull each other closer and push each other away as they indulge, or feel frightened by, their feelings.
Jack (Owen Campbell) is a loner, a point that’s thoughtfully emphasized in one uneventful day-in-the-life sequence, in which the teen is overwhelmed in the frame when he’s around others, from classmates to his forgiving and protective mother, Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson). Only alone, whether skateboarding in an empty park or riding a public bus, is Jack in his element. Until he meets Mark (Charlie Heaton), the son of Karen’s stern boyfriend, Tom (Scott Cohen), and from thereon they often take charge of the frame together, alive to the possibility that there’s life beyond themselves.
As You Are takes place in the mid-1990s, and the scene where Jack and Mark hear about Kurt Cobain’s death is pitched as a new generation’s November 22, 1963. (The film’s title alludes to the track from Nevermind, and Heaton fittingly exudes the shaggy-haired sex appeal of the Nirvana frontman.) These teens are rebels living in Nowheresville, bonding over weed, cough syrup, grunge music, and truancy. But their initially fraternal bromance hesitantly evolves into traditional romance—from the homosocial to the homosexual. A girl, Sarah (Amandla Sternberg), completes their group, as a girlfriend to both boys at different points, but as a love interest she’s a red herring, as the boys spend just as much time kissing each other as they do her.
Joris-Peyrafitte and co-writer Madison Harrison punctuate these honestly wrought episodes with docu-video police interviews with various characters. Along with the extreme close-up of a battered face glimpsed before As You Are’s opening titles, followed by the jolting boom of an off-screen gunshot, the scenes foreshadow a violent climax. It all suggests that all these budding relationships will not quite bloom. The quasi-narrational interrogations set up a contrast between the way things happen and the way the characters say they did—the details we keep to ourselves and the ones we share. This tension is made more serious by the intolerant milieu in which Jack and Mark live, where their secrets seem less like a luxury than a necessity.
It all builds to a gunshot, and as it nears, despite a pretty effective psych-out, you know who’s on the wrong side of it. The question is how it happened or, more aptly, why. But Joris-Peyrafitte chooses not to answer. His ending isn’t ambiguous in a real-world way; surely a few quick forensics tests could settle the mystery of how, and a good interrogator could get the story about why. But the point is that the answer doesn’t matter. The filmmakers don’t have to subject one character to the indignity of a suicide, nor the other to that hoary cliché of the hysterical homicidal homosexual. Instead, they just give us death, suggesting that it was always the only possible outcome.