“Fourteen-year-old J goes by the pronoun ‘They’ and lives with their parents in the suburbs of Chicago. J is exploring their gender identity while taking hormone blockers to postpone 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 and her maybe/maybe-not Iranian partner Araz arrive to take care of ‘They’.”
Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s film is lovely and understated. J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) is in the midst of transitioning from male to female but has chosen to delay puberty, leading to an odd sense of displacement adding yet another problems of being a kid. This is a film about life in an in-between state (even as J looks to find a place in the world, their sister’s boyfriend’s Iranian family struggles with a different kind of uprooting).
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 ‘G’ or ‘B’.
Most films that we have had with a trans character at their center, the plot was about the experience of gender. “They” places J’s self-inquiry into a broader context. Their parents are out of town, and so J’s older sister Lauren (Nicole Coffineau) and her partner Araz (Koohyar Hosseini) arrive to look after them. Lauren has been away at school, and then working as an artist, so she and J have some catching up to do and Araz is a new acquaintance. So there are familial relationships being worked out aside from J’s own questioning of gender. Director
Ghazvinizadeh gives us a surprising picture of a neighborhood, and by extension an enclosed world, in which J’s gender fluidity is not an issue.
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. There is a sense to the world that is so pointedly non-judgmental that it feels somewhat artificial. The tone coincides with Ghazvinizadeh’s slow, quiet passages of suburban landscape and close-ups of colorful flowers. There’s a self-serious attempt at artistic expression that at times feels overbearing.
But these complaints minor and compared with most films about trans or gender-nonconforming characters, this film is a minor miracle. (that it stars an actually trans lead actor helps greatly.)
Transgender is captured with sincerity here and we really see that life is extremely delicate. The film is 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.
Since J is unsure of their gender with each day being 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. Ghazvinizadeh’s film is bound to bored some viewers. There is almost no crucial narrative development, 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.
J never faces discrimination and bullying, even when strolling down the block draped in a floral dress. The film shows us that gender is not the single way to define a person, just like neither are 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 clothing.
Dialogue between characters feels authentic and conversational, never alluding to some major escalation in storytelling or exposition.
Young Fehrenbacher, in his very first performance, is wonderful in his own quiet way. – 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 shaking. 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.
The film captures gender, society, and culture with sincerity and intimacy making “They” an inspired and thoughtful character study. It is director Ghazvinizadeh’s meditation of life and humanity and as such there is nothing that is mundane.