They/Them debuts on Peacock on Aug. 5, 2022.
A more straightforward film than its shlocky title might suggest, John Logan’s directorial debut They/Them (pronounced “they slash them”) finds ways to occasionally allude to the dangers of conversion therapy, but rarely conjures real dread with its scattered serial killer saga. A limp horror drama that quickly peters out — both narratively and stylistically — it features hints of real character, real horror, and real desire, but turns away from each one as swiftly as a homophobe catching a glimpse of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. In fact, by the time it reaches its whimper of a conclusion, it feels downright cowardly.
After opening with a genuinely thrilling kill sequence on a shadowy forest trail — in which a cloaked and masked murderer stalks, notably, a woman with short hair and gender-neutral fashion — They/Them introduces its potential victims, a group of queer teenagers and young adults arriving at an isolated gay conversion camp. This is Camp Whistler, whose upbeat motto of “Respect. Renew. Rejoice.” is matched in cadence by its cheery head counselor, Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon). Owen makes his intentions known up front: he wants this group of gay, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary youths to find a sense of gender normativity, but only if they really want to. This element of choice is, of course, illusory, since many of the kids were sent to Camp Whistler by their parents, but Owen ensures a welcoming atmosphere, and an unexpected understanding when protagonist Jordan (Theo Germaine), a nonbinary character, asks to be addressed using they/them pronouns.
Of course, this polite mask soon begins to slip. For instance, a white woman counselor (Hayley Griffith) forces her way into the shower (for “proof”) after clocking a Black transgender woman, Alexandra (Quei Tann), who’s soon reprimanded for hiding her identity, and forced to sleep in the boys’ cabin. However, this sort of loaded imagery, at the cross-section of racial and gender identity — racism underpins a significant amount of anti-trans rhetoric — is something the film seldom acknowledges, even implicitly. It’s sprinkled atop an otherwise plain story, in which vectors of identity like race and class, while they come up either in conversation or through the presence of non-white faces, don’t really factor into its flattened tale of discrimination.
Were this a movie where said flattening could make room for something chilling, upsetting, or even deviously fun, it would be more than forgivable, but once They/Them dispenses with its repetitive fake-out scares, it becomes largely concerned with conversations, some of them eerie, but most of them verbose and emotionally nondescript. Jordan is, at one point, admonished by a widely smiling therapist (Carrie J. Preston), but this dressing down has little effect on them through the rest of the film, and when Asian American character Veronica (Monique Kim) is introduced through a central contradiction, of wanting to be “cured” of queerness while still presenting as non-conforming, the resolution the movie finds for this dramatic clash is particularly uninteresting (to say nothing of the way white characters’ behavior towards her is something They/Them refuses to unpack).
For the most part, even the more discomforting things that happen to the characters have little lasting impact. Meanwhile, the tale of the masked killer — which, mind you, opens the entire movie — all but disappears for over an hour. What’s left is a story that treads water as it borrows spare parts from better conversion therapy dramas, between scenes of reclaiming joy through song and dance, which have no meaningful ripple effects the way they do in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and rigorous therapy sessions that are much more claustrophobic and viscerally disturbing in Boy Erased.
But the movie They/Them seems to want to emulate most is Sleepaway Camp (of course, with the 1983 slasher’s trans panic subverted, and re-inserted into this movie as an antagonistic force). However, despite a handful of scenes hinging on the enforcement of gender roles, They/Them doesn’t have nearly the same penchant for lurid terror. It’s also a half-baked whodunit where no one really seems aware that there’s a mystery afoot, or even a killer on the loose, until the bloodless final act.
The unimpressive resolution is tied up in notions of righteous vengeance, which the movie approaches in such oddly didactic fashion as to be not only ethically gutless, but cinematically offensive in how absolutely vapid it proves to be. It is, perhaps, the rare movie sure to unite queerphobic bigots (by merely existing as an LGBTQ story) and people championing queer rights, with its borderline both-sides “go out and vote” moralistic approach to resistence, and to the stark, realistic violence that it doesn’t even have the spine to train its camera on for more than a few frames before cutting away.