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'They/Them' Is Very, Very Far from What It Was Aiming For

By Alison Lanier | Film | August 13, 2022 |

By Alison Lanier | Film | August 13, 2022 |


They/Them (you say it They-Slash-Them) is not a good movie, and it’s very difficult to even begin to watch it without knowing that—mostly thanks to the fact that you can only watch the movie on Peacock, and Peacock oh so helpfully displays the dismal Rotten Tomatoes stats at the bottom left corner. So you’re well warned by the tipped-over popcorn, the green splat, and the low ratings right off the bat. An annoying feature of the streaming service? Undoubtedly. But in the case of They/Them, it was helpful to remind myself that other internet folks were out there thinking this movie is as much of a misfire as I did.

The movie, prolific screenwriter John Logan’s directorial debut, takes place at an LGBTQ+ conversion camp in the middle of the creepy woods. As a whole, They/Them is basically an awkward, non-self-aware mishmash of homophobia and obligatory horror tropes doled out by the bucketful. An LGBTQ+ conversion camp is a pretty intuitive setting for a horror film: a place that is fundamentally setting out to destroy the vulnerable people forced there. It’s the summer camp horror trope on all kinds of genuinely unsettling steroids. I’m sure there’s a way to do it well. But this ain’t it.

The campers as an ensemble cast arrive with varying degrees of self-hatred or repugnance toward the camp itself, as well as their awful families for sending them there. All the campers are young and attractive, implied to be late high-school-aged or in their early twenties at the latest. Most have struck deals with their horrible parents to “try” the conversation camp in order to avoid further abusive consequences in their home life (except for Toby (Austin Crute), who is trading a week at conversion camp for a trip to Broadway, which … is a bad deal).

Our lead character is Jordan (Theo Germaine), a trans nonbinary camper who stands up to the counselors and snoops where they shouldn’t, uncovering the nightmare-fuel abuses that the camp deploys. Alongside them are Toby, Alexandra (Quei Tann), Veronica (Monique Kim), Stu (Cooper Koch), Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro), and Kim (Anna Lore) as the core cast of campers.

Kevin Bacon headlines as the big bad, camp leader Owen, who alongside his American-Gothic creepy psychologist wife Cora (Carrie Preston) reigns over the camp with a smile almost as taxidermized as the animal heads on the wall of his home. Owen comes in with a smiling welcome speech that is meant to be disarmingly supportive, including little tidbits like that he doesn’t have a problem with gay people, and if you’re okay with the way you are, then you are welcome to live your life that way.

The camp’s methods are 99% gaslighting, and you can feel the narrative trying to paint a portrait of kids whose defenses are being lowered so that they can be well and truly decimated by the outright queerphobic garbage spewed at them by the camp “psychologist,” Cora. If there were more queer bashing and bible thumping, Jordan comments, they’d be less freaked out.

There’s also the groundskeeper (Mark Ashworth) who spies on girls in the shower while sitting among his unmotivated/unexplained collection of suitably creepy dolls. There’s a super-hot closeted-lesbian activities coordinator (Hayley Griffith) who hits on a female camper and outs Alexandra as a trans woman by (again) spying on her in the shower. There’s the super-macho, still-super-gay-and-repressed camp counselor (Boone Platt) who is a product of the camp’s methods and just flourishing in a sham marriage. It’s all about as subtle as a rock to the head.

Logan is a screenwriter from whom I expected far more inventiveness. The man wrote Gladiator and The Aviator, for goodness sake. We get flashes of that potential in how pitch-perfect Bacon’s opening monologue and Cora’s “no one will ever love you” therapy session with Jordan are. It’s when the tone has to shift that it shifts all at once, from self-aware, open-armed acceptance to gender-essentialist hunter-gatherer pseudo-science with no transition at all. There are the trying-too-hard lines, like Alexandra volunteering to undertake a difficult task and insisting (paraphrased): “I’m a Black trans woman. I could do it in heels.” These people are less characters and more fetish objects for depicting social issues. By the time half of the movie has elapsed and the kids are all enduring predictable, demeaning homophobic abuses, the story feels like it’s undermining itself. Yes, conversion camps are horrible. Yes, this is super unpleasant to watch. It all feels like a cartoonish, indulgent romp through homophobic and transphobic tropes without any narrative payoff. The abuses continue to escalate. The kids bond. Tick tock.

It’s in the second half when the physical violence skyrockets and the curtain gets pulled back, that the movie really rounds the corner into bad. And by turns a corner, I mean it goes full circle from trying to be thoughtful commentary to becoming a tone-deaf, icky trainwreck.

The underlying logic of the movie turns out to be that the most righteous and correct course an abused person can take is … grin/grimace and bear it. Revenge is bad. The “bigger” thing is to let abusers keep abusing as long as it doesn’t affect you. By this movie’s logic, fighting back against abuse is as scary/bad/upsetting as the abuse itself. Which…no.

We had the potential here to create a horror movie where the horror is the conversion camp abuse and the typically horror-trope ax murders are the saving grace that rescues the kids from the camp’s plans. Where we’re primed for jump scare violence but are looking for horror in all the wrong places. Instead, we get a warped, violence-is-never-the-answer nonsense moralizing narrative ripe with misguided attempts at inclusivity and openness which, just like Bacon’s opening monologue, are exactly as hollow and pretentious as they sound.