BFI Flare: They — a film haunted by what it should have been ★
A story billed as being about a non-binary teen forced to make an important choice about their transition spends the bulk of the film ignoring its main character.
The idea of ‘They’ is an attractive one — a story about a non-binary teenager who has medically delayed their puberty is very topical as debates about trans children rage on.
Fourteen-year-old J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) is pushed into making decisions about whether to transition after health issues prevent their continued use of puberty blockers.
But what could have been an intimate look into the experiences of a non-binary teen quickly loses focus, spending its bulk entangled in uninteresting side plots that unfairly dominate the story.
Rather than looking at J’s conflict or personality in any depth, They chooses to devote most of the short 80-minute runtime towards the relationship between J’s sister, her boyfriend and his family.
The most we see of J’s turmoil is a clichéd blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when they are forced to decide which gendered toilet to use, as all other issues are cast aside.
There are echoes of this film’s potential when They finally shifts its full focus onto J in the last 10 minutes, which gives a tantalising glimpse into what They could — and should — have been.
For the bulk of the film, interesting details about J’s difficult decision and their relationships are pushed aside in favour of bland conversations between other characters.
The dialogue of the more talkative characters is often clunky and paired with lifeless performances, making the film awkward to watch at times.
The weak narrative and wooden acting are further dampened by bizarre technical choices, such as including broken, full screen Skype calls, which at times make the film actively unwatchable.
Fehrenbacher’s portrayal of J is decent, and would suit the tone of a film focused entirely on a non-binary teen’s experiences.
However, their soft and hesitant performance required more time on screen to prompt the audience to connect.
By attempting to do too much in 80 minutes, the entire film is absent of emotional depth and does not give space for the audience’s sympathy.
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In a film so deeply rooted in emotion and intimate connections, this is a fatal error.
Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, They touches on the dynamics and struggles of an Iranian-American family, which while interesting, feel strange and distracting in the otherwise quiet film.
The only potential saving grace of the film is its visual appeal, but even this is largely irrelevant as each drawn-out shot is yet another side plot.
They was the perfect platform to explore the life of a teen pushed towards a binary that does not suit them, but instead leaves you with a sense that it is half-finished, or that somehow you went to see the wrong film by mistake.