By Christina Schultz
If you think it’s hard being a woman, try being a prepubescent teenager who can’t decide whether they - not he or she, the semantics are important here - even want to become a woman or not. That is precisely what director and writer Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s film They wants us to witness: “their” decision process, or more accurately indecision process, on deciding which gender to become. And this is where the film might disappoint those who expect a traditional resolution. In the end, we don’t know what they decide.
“They” goes by the name J, played by Rhys Fehrenbacher, a gender non-conforming 14-year-old assigned female at birth. Rhys, however, was born male and identifies as transgender. Like his character, Rhys was going through identity-postponement at the time the film was being made. Similarities and differences between J and Rhys aside, Rhys’ performance of J is excellent, capturing a shyness, delicateness and vulnerability totally fitting with the film’s overall theme of indecision, as if J’s introversion is somehow linked to the fact they don’t know who they are. J seems to get lost in the shuffle quite often throughout the 90 minute story, perhaps because of their indecision. We often see J in the garden tending to plants, quietly fixing technical issues (like pinning up a young boy’s outfit or fitting an iPhone into a projector) or hiding in the shed keeping tabs on how they feel that day: B - G - ? The hormone blockers, non-FDA approved by the way, are giving J more time to decide. The monthly tallies of Bs, Gs and ?s, when the camera offers us a glimpse of them, do not reveal a clear-cut answer. J tells her older sister Lauren something that perfectly captures their dilemma: “I wish I could remain a child.” Then J could avoid making the decision, which society might see as an act of resistance (by denying the very core of our heteronormative society), albeit a quiet one. This indecision, suspension, postponing of becoming an adult unfortunately has no easy solution, and the film’s ending highlights this fact.
But J isn’t the only one with a big decision ahead of them in the film that remains unresolved. Lauren, played by Nicole Coffineau, is the polar opposite of J. Extroverted, artistically-inclined, decidedly female and in a heterosexual relationship. She has to decide whether or not to take a job assignment in another city. Lauren’s Iranian boyfriend Araz, played by Koohyar Hosseini, inevitably steals the show. He is a ray of humor in an otherwise somber and slow-moving film. He and his family, who live in the suburbs of Chicago, are lively, loud, chaotic and speak a dizzying mix of English and Persian. Araz, we learn at a family get together, has visa troubles and must decide whether to move back to Iran or marry Lauren, which is now problematic if she takes the job. This is the point when J, referred to as “Lauren’s brother” in the Iranian household, is almost forgotten. At first I saw this as a weakness of the film, but when one considers the theme of indecision it all falls into place. J is always around, observing, helping, thinking, even if they are not always the center of attention.
As if the three main characters and their (in)decisions were not enough, Ghazvinizadeh adds another, subtler reminder of the theme. J and Lauren’s aunt suffers from dementia and there is uncertainty about the aunt’s health and future. In other words, we briefly meet another character who is in a state of arrested development.
Not only is Ghazvinizadeh’s thematic choice inspired by Robert Bresson’s idea of fragmentation and ellipsis, ambiguity and the undefinable, but also her camerawork, which I found skilled and diverse. She uses a number of mediated shots with images reflected in glass doors or the spectator looking through windows at the action. There are also static shots and close ups on flowers, J’s list or, my personal favorite, of J’s dirty knees from the garden. We have tracking shots of J from behind, which focuses on their alabaster neck and further highlights their vulnerability. We even see shots of computer screens when Lauren and Araz conduct Skype calls.
They is ultimately an intimate story about searching for yourself. In the end, we are reminded it is not always easy. The likeable characters and appealing visuals make up for the, for some, frustrating lack of resolution. What is important is that you have a loving family who will support you for who you are, no matter what you decide.
Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, clinical psychologist explains transgender vs gender-nonconforming in this video:
[Note: much of the information in this review was gathered by the author during a post-film discussion with director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh; the photos were also taken by the author during the discussion]