'They': Film Review | Cannes 2017

They -Still 1 -Publicity -H 2017
Courtesy of Luxbox
A minor-key portrait of an identity crisis.

Jane Campion executive produced Iranian-born director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh's debut feature, which premiered as a special screening in Cannes.

An artfully made if rather slight study of modern-day identity issues, writer-director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s feature debut They follows a family of three over a weekend where a major decision will impact their lives for the long-run.

Ostensibly about a 14-year-old named J (the “they” of the title) who is unsure of which gender to choose for the future, the film deals with its protagonist in an almost indirect way, veering off into a long and digressive second act before tying up the plot during its closing minutes.

With naturalistic performances that are not always up to the par, this low-budget effort does benefit from Ghazvinizadeh’s dream-like visual style, as well its treatment of a subject that has rarely been seen on screen. An out-of-competition premiere in Cannes, not to mention an executive producer credit for Jane Campion, should give this minor American indie a boost at home and abroad.

Through voiceover and overlapping dialogue, we learn early on that J (Rhys Fehrenbacher, quietly effective), who has been taking hormone blockers for some time, is now obliged to decide what sex they will be in the future. With the doctor’s appointment coming up after the weekend, J is joined in a tree-lined Chicago suburb 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 involving Araz’s status as an immigrant living far away from his homeland.

Initially the film concentrates on J’s placid if somewhat disquieting existence – tending to the family garden, wandering alone around the house – with Ghazvinizadeh 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.

The problem is that neither Coffineau or Hosseini comes across as very captivating performers, nor is their plight as interesting as the dilemma facing J. Yet for some reason Ghazvinizadeh dedicates much of the movie’s middle section to a dinner at Araz’s aunt’s house involving a slew of relatives and their family squabbles.

At that point They transforms from an intimate look at one shy teenager’s gender confusion into a sort of home movie about Iranian-Americans. It's a curious decision that manages to slightly deepen our interest in Araz but also to push J out of the picture, and we only really return to the film's principal subject in the closing section, though it feels like too little, too late.

Ghazvinizadeh, who was born in Tehran and studied at The Art Institute of Chicago, showcases an elliptical style that favors shallow-focus images of faces and objects, giving her film a rather ethereal quality that mimics J’s wavering state of mind. Music by Vincent Gillioz also adds to the movie's hazy and ruminative texture.

The soft-spoken and endearing Fehrenbacher brings some emotional depth to the proceedings, although one really longs 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. By remaining deliberately enigmatic, They winds up nearly passing alongside the unique and very special character that lies at its heart. 

Production company: Mass Ornament Films
Cast: Rhys Fehrenbacher, Koohyar Hosseini, Nicole Coffineau
Director, screenwriter: Anahita Ghazvinizadeh
Producers: Zoa Sua Cho, Simone Ling
Executive producers: Jane Campion, Joe Klest, Bic Tran, Patty West
Director of photography: Carolina Costa
Production designer: Yong Ok Lee
Costume designer: Robin Lee
Editors: Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, Dean Gonzalez
Composer: Vincent Gillioz
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Luxbox

No rating, 80 minutes