THEY/THEM REVIEW: TARGETS AND TRIGGERS
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Since Blumhouse’s They/Them premiered on Peacock, conversations around it have lit the internet ablaze. Queer viewers and critics have been especially engaged due to the wide and subversive aim of this project. Considering the current climate of Anti-LGBTQIA2S+ legislation, screenwriter John Logan (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alien: Covenant) decided to pursue this slasher story set in a gay conversion camp as his directorial debut. Most unique is the film’s authentically Queer cast in a Queer written, produced, and directed story. Add in the all-too-real subject matter and the result is a rarity across the industry. They/Them (THEY. SLASH. THEM.) navigates triggering territory through the comedic horror lens that its genius title implies.
Conversion “therapy” has largely been exposed for the pseudo-scientific and abusive practice that it is. Regardless, only 20 states have legislation actively banning this abuse on minors. According to the Movement Advancement Project, a glaring 32% of LGBTQIA2S+ live in states with no laws or policies protecting them against conversion therapy. It's a heartbreaking reality for the youth that resemble the teenage characters in this film.
These young actors are eclectic, charismatic, and vulnerable enough to carry LGBTQIA2S+ narratives in believable stride. Theo Germaine as non-binary teen Jordan brings life to dialogue that might otherwise feel one-dimensional. Quei Tann also brings a spirited energy to her role. Austin Crute and Monique Kim standout with physically comedic performances. Queer sex scenes serve as a reminder of They/Them’s target demographic. Shout-out to Kim’s Veronica for name-dropping Jason Voorhees before getting intimate. Serial killers always seem to be the best aphrodisiacs at summer camps. Another memorable scene comes in the form of a musical sing-along to Pink’s “F*ckin’ Perfect.” Admittedly, it is a reach to believe a room of Gen Z teens know every word to a millenial hit in this fun if misplaced moment.
Kevin Bacon (Friday the 13th, The Hollow Man) makes his long awaited return to horror as the enigmatic camp owner - Owen Whistler. His teachings insist that violence is within male nature whereas docility is inherently female. They/Them is careful not to attribute this morality to any one religion, making its threat universal. In reality, most similar institutions are backed by Christian beliefs. Imagery of birds feeding on smaller birds adorn the camp walls, representing the trauma enacted by these predatory adult counselors. Whistler firmly declares, “I am a man of respect here.”
Therein lies the most unsettling truth of the film. These types of abusive, oppressive, cis, white, straight men will always boast respect and influence somewhere.
Despite progressive intentions, They/Them ultimately suffers from mixed messaging. Physical torture sequences enter “trauma porn” territory, making it harder to justify for an LGBTQIA2S+ demographic.
Guised under a cleverly slashed mask, the killer’s minute backstory still makes them a relative stranger by the time credits roll. This movie’s brand of redemption is a little too clean-cut to really stab into satisfying terror. Only the unequivocally bad (the counselors) face death and torment. No real high stakes are placed on any human death. The most upsetting kill by far happens when Duke the dog faces the end of a shotgun. Germaine’s Jordan feels righteous for choosing not to murder Whistler, taking away any sense of catharsis from the counselors’ deaths. Allyship itself is put into question when Jordan states, “No one needs to save me.”
On the contrary, allyship is often crucial to Queer liberation and autonomy, as exemplified when Tann’s Alexandra depends on an empathetic counselor in order to get her medication. At its worst, They/Them aims for Queer viewers but misses its mark and lands as a piece better suited for cis, straight audiences. At its best, it is the beginning of a long-overdue conversation surrounding the lack of protection we offer young people and their identities.