As You Are is a story about isolation, fracturing relationships and the need to belong. From first-time filmmaker Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, the film premiered at Sundance in 2016, and opens in theaters just over a year later.
Joris-Peyrafitte was just 23 when he had his first feature in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. The prodigious talent directed, co-wrote (with his childhood best friend, Madison Harrison), and co-scored the film. He also has a cameo.
The film originated as a short for his senior thesis at Bard College. As You Are is set in the mid-1990s, in Albany, New York (where Joris-Peyrafitte grew up, as did this writer). It portrays the friendship and drama of three teenagers and their families, as the characters recount it to police interrogators and in flashbacks.
Owen Campbell (of Boardwalk Empire and The Americans) stars as Jack, a teenager living with his mother, Karen. Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) plays Mark, a classmate who, along with his father (Tom, Karen’s new boyfriend), moves in with Jack and his mother. Jack is the quieter of the two kids, in contrast to Mark’s wild spirit. The two instantly bond, along with their friend Sarah, played passionately by Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games). Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes, Benny & Joon) and Scott Cohen (NYPD Blue) portray Karen and Tom respectively. The film captures a sense of isolation, angst and discovery as the characters navigate their instant new family, against the backdrop of ’90s grunge scene.
“I knew the story that I wanted to tell, and the time frame was a tool,” says Joris-Peyrafitte. “I wanted to isolate the characters in a different way. The ’90s were a time without immediate connectedness. The challenges of growing up have not changed with technology, but how kids cope with them have changed.” In the film, no one is sharing music, checking Facebook, or calling their mom on the way home from school. The story does not romanticize the ’90s, but rather uses the time period to provide an all-American present as the characters find their place.
Jack and Mark revel in their parent’s temporary distraction of being in a new relationship. “The parents are finding their identity as much as the kids are,” said Joris-Peyrafitte. Karen, once the successful, popular girl in town, now must face her failed marriage and new dynamics of dating as a single mom. Tom’s personality brings a different level of order and power to Jack and Karen’s home.
“I had never directed adults before,” said Joris-Peyrafitte. “Scott and Mary knew how [their characters] saw things. I put them in the head space, and they brought a lot of improvisation. That’s your palate to work with in the edit. I worked with the kids the same way.”
The police interrogation scenes have a grey, cold feel; they’re all done in a single take. Joris-Peyrafitte shot them on Hi8 from 1994. “I wanted to give it an authenticity and a claustrophobic feeling,” he said. In contrast, the flashback scenes (shot on Red Dragon, with Hawk anamorphic lenses) are high-energy and laced with color. These scenes highlight openness, shot in a lush forest, a skateboard park, a shooting range and a gorgeous river, among other locations. The production shot in 29 locations over their 24-day shoot.
“Scheduling was tight, but it was important to show the differences in space to give that fractured feeling. The film then becomes a map of where these relationships are,” said Joris-Peyrafitte. “It should feel jagged because the story is constructing a memory.”
None of the iconic Albany buildings (like the New York State Capitol, Empire State Plaza, or The Egg, a performing arts venue) appear among those multiple locations; in fact, Joris-Peyrafitte never provides an establishing shot throughout his film. “It’s memory-based,” he said of his choice. “The film puts us in the mindset of these kids. We are seeing what they are seeing. It’s isolating and we are inside of it.”
As You Are won Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award in 2016. The movie beautifully captures the spirit of ’90s youth, which thanks to the tech revolution, we are likely never to experience again—and it does so in my hometown, which looks spectacular. MM
As You Are opens in theaters February 24, 2017, courtesy of Votiv Films.