They

(USA / Qatar 2017)

“You’ll never be a girl. You’re not a boy. So you’re probably nothing.”

— J

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature film They delicately tells the story of J (Rhys Fehrenbacher), a quiet suburban Chicago teen transitioning from male to female. Along with therapy sessions and physician consultations for “puberty blocking” drugs and “bone density” test results, J is processing the social and psychological implications of their change. We know it’s happening, but we see it in action when J puts on a dress and goes outside, or when he explains to others how to make an introduction to a stranger and which pronoun to use (“they,” hence the title).

The process is awkward, particularly when older sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), brings her fiancé, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), home to meet the family. With mom (Norma Moruzzi) away caring for an aunt who has early onset dimentia, J is left to deal alone. Meeting Araz’s Iranian family in the suburbs seems to be a reckoning for J.

If nothing else, They is visually arresting, artfully shot with georgeous pans and closeups of buildings, walls, plants, and flowers. Ghazvinizadeh plays with reflections on glass and uses a muted color pallet that nicely underscores J’s fluid state of mind. It sets just the right tone: hazy and dreamy.

That said, both the narrative and the character development in They fall short. I’m not sure Lauren and Azaz are necessary, and I certainly don’t have more than a passing sense of who they are or why they’re here. The dinner at Araz’s family is dropped in clumsily, throwing off the trajectory of the story. The focus gradually and inexplicably shifts away from J, which I found strange.

Watching They feels voyeuristic, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. However, it feels like an obstacle — a transparent partition — keeps me from getting too close to the characters. That’s a shame because this is a film that demands an amount of intimacy that simply isn’t accommodated. On top of that, the actors’ naturalistic performances meander quite a bit, which made me zone out at times.

Overall, They could have been a much more powerful statement. Still, it’s a decent effort even with its shortcomings and a few dull parts.

With Diana Torres, Evan Gray, Drew Sheil, Leyla Mofleh, Mohammad Aghebati, Alma Sinai, Arian Naghshineh, Ava Naghshineh, Aerik Jahangiri, Farid Kossari, Kaveh Ehsani, Robert Garofalo, Eric Fehrenbacher, Vicki Sheil

Production: Mass Ornament Films

Distribution: N/A

Screening introduced by Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and followed by a live Q and A with Ghazvinizadeh, Rhys Fehrenbacher, and Rob Garofalo

80 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.massornament.com/they

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