Miles Joris-Peyrafitte has always found Albany cinematic.
Ask another area resident to pick a filmic association for their hometown and the odds-on favorites are likely to be those movies that have drawn on the Capital Region’s history, and specifically its architectural history: The Age of Innocence used Troy effectively to recreate the Gilded Age splendor of turn-of-the-century Manhattan; most famously, the movie version of William Kennedy’s Ironweed offered a down-at-heels, Depression-era portrayal of the Capital’s shabby rowhouses and diners.
But Joris-Peyrafitte’s young imagination was, he says, more fanciful than purely historical. Born and raised in downtown Albany, he and his classmates at the Albany Free School found that facility’s “big room” a fitting substitute for the Mines of Moria in their version of the The Lord of the Rings, and Washington Park a more-than-adequate Rivendale.
“I always saw these landscapes as filmscapes,” he says. “These environments have distinct tones that interested me.”
This sensitivity to the atmospheric and emotional quality of the Capital Region and the broader Hudson Valley is strikingly evident in Joris-Peyrafitte’s debut as a feature-length director: His film, As You Are, which was co-written with his childhood friend and Free School classmate Madison Harrison, was filmed locally and makes poignant use of the upstate setting. It also won a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award.
The film focuses on the evolving and fraught relationships of a trio of teenagers, Jack, Mark and Sarah. It’s a love triangle of sorts, but to call it such is slightly misleading; as is the label “thriller,” which is also, technically, applicable.
“We didn’t want it to be a ‘coming-of-age’ story, which we thought was too reductive a way to talk about kids, about what happens to them,” Joris-Peyrafitte says. “And we didn’t want it to be thought of as a ‘thriller,’ exactly, because we were more interested in the emotional impact than the plot points. We were pursuing that emotional punch.”
The disavowal of labels by artists is no novelty, and in a young artist it can sometimes indicate the sort of well-intentioned ambition that leads to a muddled execution. Joris-Peyrafitte and his collaborators, however, have delivered a film that quite successfully threads the needle. The significant impact of the movie is due in great part to compelling performances by the three young leads. All of the movie’s performances are solid, including that of blast-from-the-past Mary Stuart Masterson, as Jack’s mother. But the roles of Mark (Charlie Heaton, of Stranger Things), Sarah (Amandla Stenberg, of The Hunger Games) and, especially, Jack (Owen Campbell, of Boardwalk Empire and The Americans) are so gracefully, engrossingly embodied that the wrenching nature of the ending is as much the sadness of separation from the characters as it is a sympathetic pang on their behalf.
Peyrafitte says that the cast and crew felt that same ache at wrap: “Oh, it was like kicking a drug,” he laughs. “They were so game, so ready to love each other unconditionally. Getting good performances out of them was the easiest part of filming. It was a high watching them explore.”
But the credit for the film’s emotional weight is also Joris-Peyrafitte’s. It’s a remarkably confident, patient bit of direction. That this is his first feature is a bit startling. It may have been largely good fortune to have landed such competent young actors, but Joris-Peyrafitte is still to be commended for deftly handling the emotionality of their interactions without, on the one hand, spoon feeding the audience a teen tragedy, or on the other, retreating into artsy distance. His actors are shot intimately and respectfully; they are also counterbalanced by the director’s subtle and smart use of the environment, which he uses almost as another character. Settings are shot in an almost iconic, Upstate Hopper-esque way–the modest rural ranch home, the service station, the highway overpass (Albany, Rennselaer) are both familiar and painterly. Several – though strategic–overhead shots hint at the objectivity that the characters, themselves, immersed as they are in their situations, their ages, their emotions, cannot hope to obtain.
It’s a lovely, lush, tense and claustrophobic all at once.
Joris-Peyrafitte and writing partner Harrison plan to continue working with the materials and moods provided by their home region. They are currently working on a noir-inspired take on the heroin and opioid problem, to be set in Poughkeepsie; and there is a third, currently less well-defined, project that will round out an envisioned Upstate Trilogy.
“I mean, I hope I’ll have a long career doing this,” Joris-Peyrafitte says. “And not all of the films I want to make will take place here in the Capital Region or in the Hudson Valley. But there’s at least this trilogy. And, though there are obstacles to filming here, as opposed to in New York City, for example, they are completely outweighed by the resources and the richness and the generosity of these communities.”
As You Are will begin its local theatrical run on March 3 at the Spectrum 8 Theatres, 290 Delaware Ave., Albany.
Photo credit: Youth FX