They (Mardi Gras Film Festival)
Rhys Fehrenbacher, Koohyar Itasseini, Nicole Coffineau
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…a well-meaning piece of work that suffers from an unfocused story.
Progress may be slow to some, but hope springs eternal that, as a society, we are shifting further in the direction of people being unafraid to identify themselves by whatever gender they wish. Iranian filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s film, They, circles around the idea of identity with the centre of her hypothesis being a young 14-year-old teen, J (Rhys Fehrenbacher).
J is currently on hormone blockers in order to give them more time to decide on whether they want to be a boy or a girl. Living with their sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hoesseini), whilst their parents are away, J goes from day to day choosing a different gender in order to see where they feel most comfortable. There’s a wonderful inversion of expectations in the beginning as, despite their turmoil, we never see J treated out of hand by those around them.
Ghazvinizadeh’s direction gives J’s days a dreamlike quality, made up as it is of still shots, close-ups and dialogue apparently deliberately re-recorded after the fact. As beautiful as these scenes come across they also, sadly, act as a barrier to J’s world. We never truly feel like we’re being allowed into J’s thoughts and feelings unless they’re vocalising them to their sister in sunkissed fields of long grass. In a sense, that’s perhaps the point. As patient as Lauren and their parents are, they can never truly understand the identity issues the young teen is having.
That said, having made progress laying out J’s day to day routine, Ghazvinizadeh makes the mistake of pushing them into the shadows of their own tale when Araz’s relatives arrive for a meal. This B-plot,which sees Araz’s family fighting, laughing and dancing to the bemusement of Lauren goes nowhere. Whilst we can draw a line from J’s life experience to Araz’s, in that the latter wishes to be American, but yearns for home, it effectively blocks out the young lead’s story and never really recovers its pacing.
And it really is a shame to lose sight of J, as Fehrenbacher – who identifies closely in real life with J – stands heads and shoulders above his co-stars. His performance is so haunting and detailed he steals every scene he’s in. Overall, Ghazvinizadeh’s They is a well-meaning piece of work that suffers from an unfocused story.