Iranian-born director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature, “They” is an artfully made if rather slight study of modern-day identity issues. The film follows a family of three over a weekend where a major decision will impact their lives for the long-run. Fourteen-year-old J (the “they” of the title) is unsure of which gender to choose for the future.
J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) has been taking hormone blockers for some time and now must is decide what sex they (J’s chosen pronoun) will be in the future. With the doctor’s appointment coming up after the weekend, J is joined by their sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), who settle into the house and bring their own set of identity problems about Araz’s status as an immigrant living far away from his homeland.
Initially the film concentrates on J’s placid if somewhat disquieting existence while revealing a few key pieces of information, though not quite enough to sustain a full narrative. Gradually, the focus shifts from J to Lauren and Araz, two artists who are about to tie the knot so that Araz can get papers and stay in the U.S.
Much of the movie’s middle section is a dinner at Araz’s aunt’s house at which relatives and their families argue. Here the film becomes an intimate look at one shy teenager’s gender confusion into a sort of home movie about Iranian-Americans. Our interest in Araz is thus deepened but this but pushes J out of the picture, and we only really return to the film’s principal subject in the closing section when it seems to be a bit too late.
Fehrenbacher brings some emotional depth to the proceedings, although we really want to learn more about what made J who they is (we only get a brief glimpse of parents at one point), or what they hope to be in the future. J is a smart, shy kid who spends a lot of time in the family greenhouse tending to flowers and, at the advice of a friend, keeps a daily chart logging whether they wake up feeling more ‘G’ or ‘B’.
The film is very open and indeterminate in its structure. Whereas most films with a trans character at their center tend to make their experience of gender into the primary focal point of the plot, “They” places J’s self-inquiry into a broader context. Their parents are out of town, and so J’s older sister Lauren and her partner Araz arrive to look after them. Lauren has been away at school, and then worked as an artist, so she and J have some catching up to do, and Araz is a new acquaintance. There are familial relationships to be worked out aside from J’s own questioning of gender.
We get a surprising picture of a neighborhood, and by extension a world where J’s gender fluidity is no big deal. On a ‘G’ day, they go out in a dress. A neighbor compliments them on it; some area boys ask for J’s help with fixing their bike and are worried that J has gotten grease on their dress. As appealing as the world may be, there’s a sense in which it is so pointedly non-judgmental that it feels a bit artificial. Compared with most films about trans or gender-nonconforming characters, this film is a big surprise.
“They” is a solid drama that is sincere and thoughtful. It is gentle and tender, both in execution and examination and an impressive first film. We clearly see that gender is not the single way to define a person. Director Ghazvinizadeh’s meditation of life and humanity is not likely to be easily forgotten.