J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) is a Chicago teen struggling with gender identity in “They,” a film that, like its protagonist is a work of severe uncertainty. Caught between laid-back naturalism and aggravating affection, writer-director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s feature debut shows promise when simply coexisting with its many characters in easygoing situations. Those moments, however, are rare and fleeting, and can’t compensate for the filmmaker’s rambling storytelling and insistent aesthetic flourishes. Though its subject matter is timely and its sensitivity is palpable, the movie is far too airless and artificial to make much theatrical headway after its Cannes premiere.
Taking hormone blockers in order to delay the onset of puberty, the better to afford more time for contemplating whether to live an adult life as a male or a female, 14-year-old J — who chooses to be referred to by the pronoun “they” — lives in a state of suspended animation. If that weren’t clear enough from the basic facts of J’s condition, Ghazvinizadeh visualizes it in an endless array of fuzzy compositions that hammer home, in an ever-more-thudding manner, the character’s confusion during this period of self-definition. Those gimmicky shots are accompanied by frequent cutaways to flowers, which suggest J’s process of blossoming into their next phase — images that are often set to toy piano-style twinkling on the soundtrack.
Featuring a doggedly pretentious style, “They” also includes clunky scripting, with every conversational exchange coming across as a didactic information dump recited by actors rather than a natural chat between actual people. That this dialogue has been recorded in post-production further enhances its gracelessness. While one would like to give the film the benefit of the doubt and say that the audio/video disconnect is another reflection of J’s internal divide, it mostly feels like a technical miscalculation — one that’s exacerbated by the decision to have many lines spoken while characters’ faces and mouths are obscured if not outright off-camera.
Ghazvinizadeh’s story, as it were, concerns J being cared for by the character’s visiting sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and Lauren’s Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), who eventually take J to Araz’s relatives’ house for a get-together. Yet aside from a prolonged dinner-table sequence that boasts an unhurried and inviting flow that’s absent from the rest of the proceedings, “They” is merely a collection of stilted discussions designed to create thematic parallels with J’s plight. Thus, Lauren is some sort of experimental artist whose work focuses on “displacement and instability.” And Azaz, longing to see his parents — who can’t visit from Iran, and don’t want their son returning home lest he never get back to the States — is a man trapped between two cultures and countries, which he outright articulates for those who may have missed it: “I’m stuck in limbo with no clear choice.”
The performances are as wooden as the dialogue, with only Hosseini expressing anything other than flat, blank indecision and unhappiness. While Ghazvinizadeh (who studied film in both Iran and Chicago) is determined to attune her material to J’s stuck-in-the-middle unease, the lengths to which the director goes to evoke that state of being are so precious — replete with J spending copious time muttering poetry under her breath in hushed narration — that her film prevents any empathetic engagement with her protagonist’s dilemma.