They (2017) by Anahita Ghazvinizadeh
Retro Review by Ash Baker
*This review reveals the plot of the film, but I dare to say that nothing is necessarily spoiled*
Queer representation in film is a sensitive and important issue for the LGBTQ community, and rightfully so. We’ve been ignored, villainized, and victimized on screen since the beginning of cinematic history. In recent years, movies like Carol, Moonlight, Tangerine and others have given honest voices to queer characters that have left queer viewers feeling seen and empowered, rather than shamed, laughed at, or written off. However, according to GLAAD’s 2018 findings, queer representation in major studio films dropped 5.6% from the previous year, which is significant when the percentage of all queerness in films surveyed adds up to 12.8% percent. It’s hard to say what the cause of this drop is, but the fact remains that queer people are starved of good representation.
For this reason, and because of the fact that most queer representation is reserved for strictly gay and lesbian content, I couldn’t help but be excited to see They. The film premiered as a Special Selection at Cannes Film Festival in 2017, and it’s the debut feature for Iranian-born Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, who received her BFA in film from Tehran University of Art and her MFA in studio arts from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. Most importantly to me, though, was that in all my exploration of LGBTQ content, They had the first on-screen representation of a character using singular they/them pronouns I’ve even heard of.
I guess it’s important for me to say that I wanted this film to be good; I hesitate to write this, but my standards for LGBTQ movies aren’t usually as high as other films—or, to put it another way, there are certain things I’m willing to sacrifice to see myself represented. They was a film I particularly wanted to root for, as I transitioned to they/them pronouns after I graduated college and have seen no positive media representing my kind. As many people in the entertainment world may have disowned Louis CK, his leaked standup routine that makes fun of trans/non-binary people who use they/them pronouns certainly doesn’t feel great.
So, I watch They, and without meaning to, I get high hopes.
The film begins with 14-year-old J (played by Rhys Fehrenbacher) at a doctor’s appointment. J has been taking hormone blockers in order to postpone puberty, and the doctor tells them that after two years on the medication, they’re losing bone density. It’s time they go through with puberty, but J has to decide which hormones they want to be given, so that their body develops either male or female characteristics. This, in and of itself, is an incredibly intriguing premise, but the film quickly veers away from the questions this situation asks.
I would love to have seen a movie about the struggle a young trans/non-binary person faces when they realize their body doesn’t necessarily match their mind.
I would love to have seen a movie about how the world behaves in binaries even when some of us don’t fit into them—democrat or republican, gay or straight, male or female, Friends or Seinfeld.
Although it would have been hard to watch, I would love to have seen a movie about the struggles that trans people go through physically when they transition—the toll that the hormones take on their bodies and minds.
I even would have suffered through a movie about a trans/non-binary person transitioning to they/them pronouns and no one understanding, no one taking them seriously—a look at the Misgender Machine. I know that struggle too well. It’s why I’m still half-closeted.
What I’m really saying is, I would have liked to see a movie about something.
Instead, I got a movie only half about J, the protagonist who seems to be visibly suffering on an extreme level. I struggle to say that J is a sympathetic protagonist, and one reason for this is because it seems like we never get to know them.
J speaks very little throughout the film and when they do, their voice is strained to a whisper. J doesn’t smile. J seems always to be hiding—they’re always crouched behind a barrier or clutching an object for support. This posture might make sense for a protagonist who was completely unsupported, however, it seems to me like J lives in a complete idealistic fantasy land; everyone in J’s world supports them. J’s parents and sister use their pronouns. J’s neighbor tells them they look pretty when they come over to get bulbs for their greenhouse (J doesn’t say thanks, J doesn’t smile, J doesn’t say anything in response to this compliment). J even runs into some neighborhood boys on bicycles, which screamed red flag—run! to me, but it turned out to be an awkward, yes, but ultimately pleasant conversation. It’s a mystery to me (as someone with a completely homophobic and transphobic family) why this child isn’t empowered—why J seems so frightened of everything. There’s one scene where J’s sister misgenders J, and I felt like this moment was supposed to carry some emotional weight, but it didn’t. She corrects herself and moves on. No one in this film means J any harm. Lauren misgendering J seems more than anything like a device for the filmmaker to let the audience know (for reasons unperceivable to me) what sex J is transitioning out of.
The other half of the movie exists within the tagline of the film: an intimate story about arriving home. The film isn’t structured distinctly into two halves—it might make more sense if it were. Rather, it is interwoven with plot and subplot. The subplot being J’s sister Lauren and her Iranian boyfriend Araz coming to stay while J’s parents are gone, so that J has someone to look after them and so that Araz can be reunited with his Iranian family. We learn once these two characters arrive on the scene (through not-so-subtle dialogue) that Lauren doesn’t get along with her and J’s parents—that they disapprove of her work as an artist and her constant travelling, that perhaps they care about J more than her. We learn that she’s just now finding out about what’s going on with J, and she says, “Nobody tells me anything,” a line from the poem that J keeps reciting to themself throughout the film.
During the subplot in which J, Lauren, and Araz go to Araz’s aunt’s house for a family dinner/reunion, J remains quiet. J plays with the other children, who treat J like one of them. They even let J participate in a dance that they do with scarves around their waists and hats on their heads. J is in the background of this part of the film; if one only saw this family dinner portion of the film (which adds up to be a significant portion of the movie), one may think that Araz was the protagonist, and not J. He’s juggling conversation between his family and Lauren, and he finds out his parents are not coming to visit from Iran, which is surprising and devastating news to him.
This subplot speaks directly to the “arriving home” alternate title for the film, but it only grasps to connect with J’s plotline in the film. There’s a moment where Lauren is preparing food with one of Araz’s family members, and she’s describing her own current art installation. She describes how it’s all about “balance” and “displacement.” I couldn’t help but feel that these qualifications were nods by Ghazvinizadeh meant to symbolize J’s situation. J is displaced in their body, out of balance in life. This and two other moments J has with their sister lead me to my ultimate disappointment in this film.
There’s a moment early on, when Lauren and Araz first arrive, that J describes to Lauren a situation with their aunt who has dementia—she’d gone for a run and not come back. They’d gone to look for her and one of their neighbors had found the aunt. Later in the film, Lauren and J are walking and talking (looking for a lost cat belonging to a neighbor) and J points out the tree where their aunt was found. This happens just after J tells Lauren about a boy at school telling J that they might not be a boy or a girl—that they’re probably nothing.
They shows J in a complicated liminal space, but because of the overt ignoration of physicality, and because of the situations and symbols appearing around J—the lost aunt, the lost cat, the sister returning home, Araz’s family not returning home—J is made out to be a shadow of themself. J is nothing in this film—the character is written to be wooden, to be cold. The audience never gets a sense of who J is outside of their “condition” as this film displays it. J’s gender identity becomes nothing more than a regular trip to the doctor’s office, and their personal identity is nothing more than taking care of plants and reciting poetry to themself when they’re staring at the ceiling in the morning. In the end of the film, J presumably makes a decision about whether they want to develop male or female characteristics, but the audience is shut out of this decision. We’re also shut out of J’s interiority; the film ends without comment from J as they are driven home from the doctor by their parents, and we see a woman on a jog run to the tree J identifies as the one their aunt was found near. A poetic ending, but I’m more interested in how J’s decision ultimately affects them. The ambiguity of the decision and J’s bleak attitude towards it presents J as a victim of their identity rather than a wearer of it. In this way, what could have been a grand step forward in the world of LGBTQ cinema is a major regression.
I’m glad there’s at least one film that exists that includes a character using singular they/them pronouns. I’m really, really glad that character was played by a young trans person (and I hope I get to see Fehrenbacher in more movies). My biggest hope is for more and better representation for trans/non-binary people. Movies like They don’t do anything for the LGBTQ community, and the message they give to non-LGBTQ audiences is that these people exist (which is a good thing), but that they are sad, sad people, and we should feel bad for them. That’s not the message we need in the world right now.