Transgender is captured with sincerity in this quaint and thoughtful drama.
Life is extremely delicate. This notion is sincerely understood in writer-director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s feature debut, They. Gentle and tender, both in execution and examination, this artful addition to the Special Screenings strand is an impressive first offering from the young Iranian.
The film follows J (Rhys Fehrenbacher); a fourteen year-old American teenager who goes by the pronoun of “They”. Unsure of their gender – each day a battle to underpin emotions and outlooks – J is taking hormone blockers in order to delay puberty. After two years of medication and therapy, J has to make a decision whether or not to transition. Over this crucial weekend while their parents are away, J’s sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and her maybe/maybe-not Iranian partner, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), arrive to take care of them.
Now first things first: not everyone is going to like They; in fact, some are certain to loathe it. In a press screening peppered with walkouts, despite such a nimble 80 minute duration, Ghazvinizadeh’s subtle piece is bound to induce boredom in many audiences. But there is much beauty to be found in all its typicality. Subverting genre expectations and tropes, this quaint drama is almost without any crucial narrative developments, nor conflicts or key sequences. For a character as composite as J – trapped in a cycle, battling to locate their true self – interactions are nearly always positive, or at least civil.
We never see our young protagonist face perceived adversities such as discrimination and bullying, even when strolling down the block draped in a floral dress. They demonstrates that gender is not the single way to define a person, just like their cultures or heritage. This is thoughtfully explored through Araz’s experiences, as he invites both Lauren and J to a family meal, complete with Kurdish dancing, dining, and dressage.
Working from her own script, Ghazvinizadeh renders naturalistic dialect which is richly observed. Exchanges between characters feel authentic and conversational, never alluding to some major escalation in storytelling or exposition. Whilst in some regards They is guilty of too much filmic complacency here (there is no clear indiction of acts, for example), she is curating slice-of-life cinema; actively striving for tedious normality, even if that isn’t always fully apparent, as some Cannes critics demonstrated with their premature exits.
Young Fehrenbacher – in his very first performance – is quietly fantastic throughout. He brings much weight and emotion to a character by nakedly detailing the complexities and tribulations of such existence. Never does J break down, nor demand your attention, but viewers are always aware that inside the mind is rattling. Each morning, they record how they feel when waking, writing a ‘B’ for boy, ‘G’ for girl, or “blank” if they are unsure of their sexuality. Fehrenbacher’s reserved work allows us to grow close, and feel a part of J’s transitions – both internal and external.
Capturing gender, society, and culture with sincerity and intimacy, They is an inspired and thoughtful character study. Uneventful though it may seem, Ghazvinizadeh’s meditation of life and humanity is far from mundane.