They movie review: the most important decision of their young life

They yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Tender and contemplative, but as it meanders to its not-quite conclusion, it misses a ripe opportunity to give a stronger voice to a character the likes of which isn’t often heard.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

After a long festival run, from last year’s Cannes to this March’s BFI Flare in London, the directorial debut of up-and-coming Iranian filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh — one of Filmmaker magazines “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2013 — arrives on VOD and DVD in North America. They is precisely the sort of tender, contemplative, deceptively simple exploration of a complicated reality that we might have expected from a filmmaker who counts such legends as Abbas Kiarostami and Jane Campion among her mentors. And if it’s not entirely successful or wholly satisfactory, well, Ghazvinizadeh has only just begun to show us what she can do, and this warm, astute film heralds a promising future.

They is not entirely successful, but Anahita Ghazvinizadeh has only just begun to show us what she can do.

Where They falls down is in not being sufficiently about its protagonist, and while it makes some very wise points about their predicament from the outside looking in, it misses a ripe opportunity to delve more intimately into a character the likes of which we desperately need to see more of onscreen. “They” is 14-year-old J (Rhys Fehrenbacher), who has been taking puberty blockers for two years while they try to decide whether to complete a gender transition. (For the time being, at least, J prefers to be referred to with the pronouns “they/them/their.”) J’s family is incredibly supportive, and even their peers seem totally accepting. This is not a movie about the cultural pressures that transgender kids face, or the abuse, or anything negative at all. It’s purely about J trying to figure out who they are. And the matter has taken on a bit of urgency, for medical reasons: the drugs are starting to impact J in ways that aren’t desirable (their bone density is suffering, for one), and they are going to have to stop taking the blockers. A decision about what to do after that must be made very soon.

J’s sister is lost in her own cloud of indecision...
J’s sister is lost in her own cloud of indecision…

But They is less about the meat of J’s decision, and how they are thinking about it, and more about the larger context in which they are having to make it. They are surrounded by others — adults — whose lives are in flux, too, who are stuck in between things and can’t seem to choose, either. J’s older sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), comes home — outside Chicago, where Ghazvinizadeh is herself now based — with her boyfriend, maybe fiancé, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini). She’s an artist, and her career is at a crossroads: should she keep traveling around doing long residencies, or settle down in one place? He’s in an immigrant’s limbo, stuck in the middle of visa complications, and he’s wondering whether he should return home to Iran. His big friendly Iranian family of aunts and cousins, whom J goes to visit with the couple, underscore the idea that identity is about a lot more than your gender. But while J seems unfazed by all these confused grownups around them, the implication is clear to us: How can J be expected to make such a profound decision about the rest of their life at such a young age when all these adults can’t seem to manage much less overwhelming choices?

There’s no answer to that question, and the ironic unfairness of it is beyond human fixing. Ghazvinizadeh walks a meandering path to come to this not-quite conclusion, and while the script, which she wrote, has a lovely fluid, improvised feel to it, it left me hungry for more of J’s take on it all. Absent that, They feels like a short film that has been too much padded out, and in the wrong direction.

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