BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival ’18 Review: ‘They’ is a beautifully subdued observation of identity

Anahita Ghazvinizadeh is certainly a filmmaker to watch. A student of Abbas Kiarostami, the writer-director already has a Cinéfondation First Prize under her belt, picked up in 2015 with her short film ‘Needle’. Now, Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature casts a careful eye over the subject of childhood gender-fluidity, the pressure of conformity, and the construction of identity.

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Rhys Fehrenbacher in They (2017) © Mass Ornament Films

J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) is an introspective adolescent who takes hormone blockers to prevent the onset of puberty. This is a temporary measure, we learn in the film’s opening, as J’s medical tests suggest that a decision must be reached soon, lest their health be put at risk. J’s life is at an impasse as they float between childhood and adulthood, unable to progress until they tick a box: B or G.

In the background of this intimate observation is an Iranian-American family drama, which plays once more into the idea of merging identities. J’s sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), is preparing to marry her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), so that he may remain in the country. Differences in language make J’s neutral pronouns difficult for Araz, and he worries endearingly about the best way to explain this new concept to his family. J brushes this off, explaining that either “sibling” or “brother” is fine, and the story moves on without much conflict.

Much of the film’s short running time takes place at a dinner party with Araz’s family, a choice that, whilst duly highlighting the cultural vibrancy of J’s extended community, ultimately only distracts from our protagonist’s internal plight. Ghazvinizadeh drapes her luscious cinematography over a fragile framework that just barely holds together coherently, and a choice of non-professional actors is both organic, yet occasionally emotionally flat.

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Rhys Fehrenbacher, Koohyar Hosseini and Nicole Coffineau in They (2017) © Mass Ornament Films

The lack of external conflict over J’s gender is also twofold: whilst the film avoids damaging portrayals of hateful parents and prejudiced schoolchildren, the piece struggles to make any solid commentary on its topic. Rather, Ghazvinizadeh presents a subject (J) in their natural environment and allows the audience to make their own judgements. This method will lead to frustration for many, but simultaneously provides an open lens through which to investigate gender-fluidity.

And what a beautiful lens this is. J is often observed from an obscured viewpoint, whether this be through doors, blurred glass, or simply from a distance. Ghazvinizadeh’s aesthetic choice creates an ill-defined subject, reflecting J’s internal split between two artificial ideals. The ambiguity of the camera upon our human subject is contrasted perfectly with frequent still shots of the natural world; this conflict between the constant (natural) and the uncertain (human) is emblematic of J’s wish to remain outside of an artificial, gendered existence.

Inside locations are hushed with soft pastel tones that are perfectly synthesised with J’s innocent outlook on life, encouraged by a gentle score of bells and chimes. Heavy-handed metaphors occasionally pierce this fantasy; J used to sleep in the blue-painted room but now resides in the yellow-painted room. The strict binary looms over J’s perfect bubble and is most palpable when they are sat marking boxes and murmuring: “B…G…G…B…G…B” as they record their gender across time – a monotonous rhythm that forms a sharp reminder of J’s impending choice.

Despite a dream-like style, Ghazvinizadeh brings J’s story back to social relevance by the end of the film. We follow J into the gender-clinic bathroom (a noted space of conflict for trans issues), where they peer at themselves in the mirror, a wistful poem spoken via voiceover. “I do not know my age,” J reads, fragmented once more by the separation of image and voice. They have reached the crossroads, ready or otherwise.

‘They’ currently has no UK or US wide release date. For the rest of our BFI Flare film coverage, click here.

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