There are no Nirvana songs in As You Are. It makes sense: More than a few seconds of the iconic, underwater guitar warble from the radio smash in question would probably cost more than the entire budget of this tiny American indie. Still, we are talking about a movie named for a Nirvana song, that follows a couple of teenagers obsessed with Nirvana, and that uses Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide as a plot point. The omission feels a little glaring, even distracting. So, too, does the absence of any music from the mid-’90s, when As You Are is set. While the characters gush about the Melvins and Mudhoney and GG Allin, director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and avant-garde composer Patrick Higgins provide their own original soundtrack. Sometimes it sounds like outtakes from an Explosions In The Sky record. Other times it sounds like an imitation of the moody synth score from It Follows. Never does it sound much like something grunge fans might like.
Is this an unfair nitpick? There probably aren’t too many Portland skater kids who listen to Nino Rota, but that didn’t hurt Gus Van Sant’s sublime teenage daydream Paranoid Park, which uses the Italian composer’s music extensively. The big difference is that era is the only thing theoretically distinguishing As You Are, about the friendship or maybe more that develops between a couple of shaggy-haired high school boys, from a hundred other movies vaguely like it. But without any period-specific music to help establish a sense of time and place—a real cultural backdrop—even the setting remains a little fuzzy. Were it not for an abundance of flannel and a dearth of cellphones, this movie could easily be set here and now.
“Are you some kind of Holden Caulfield suburban tragedy?” Mark (Charlie Heaton) asks Jack (Owen Campbell) when their parents start dating. The short answer would be yes, though Mark—who’s more confident than his lanky new companion—has plenty of his own disdain for the phonies. Mark and Jack bond over weed and records (though, again, we don’t actually hear the latter), commiserating about the shittiness of their school and taking beatings from the local meatheads. The two also start palling around with a pretty classmate, Sarah (Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games), but the resulting love triangle isn’t a competition for her affection. If anything, she’s a buffer between two boys gently falling for each other.
Campbell, best known perhaps for the significant role he played in the second season of The Americans, has a willowy vulnerability that will ring true to anyone who feels (or felt) just too raw-nerve sensitive for the mundane terrors of high school. And Heaton is as convincing as a Clinton-era misfit romantic—an other-side-of-the-tracks lover boy—as he was as the Reagan-era version of the same on Stranger Things. They have good chemistry, but As You Are cages it within a flashback framework: Scenes of the major characters sitting down for videotaped police interrogations reduce the relationship to clues and red herrings. Does the terrible… something we know will eventually happen involve Mark’s domineering ex-military father (Scott Cohen, surprisingly sympathetic in a role that could have been much more one-note)? A mere process of elimination hints at who will be left standing by the end. And Chekhov would probably have something to say about the pair of handguns that pop up in the first act.
What this mystery component does is make As You Are feel like a banal true-crime story brought unnecessarily to the screen, when really it’s an expansion of a strictly fictional short (which does help account for the skimpiness of the narrative). But this isn’t a film that needed investigative urgency. It fares best when simply behaving like a grungier, meandering Perks Of Being A Wallflower—when just keeping downtime with its outcast heroes as they cut class, talk shit, and tiptoe into the shallow waters of first romance. Oh, and bicker about music, too: There’s a nice offhand moment when Jack defends Pearl Jam to Mark, whose only real rebuttal is to just repeat “Jeremy“ over and over again. It feels like a real argument real teenagers might have had in 1994. Of course, actually playing some of the music they’re talking about wouldn’t have hurt.