Not every filmmaker gets to make their feature-film debut at Cannes. But when you’ve studied with Abbas Kiarostami, and Jane Campion once said your voice had “a very unique flavor,” your chances are pretty good. Such is the case for Iranian writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and her stunning debut feature, “They,” an impressionistic character study about a gender non-conforming kid named J (Rhys Fehrenbacher).
Though Ghazvinizadeh’s voice is wholly her own, Kiarostami’s influence is all over “They.” And if you’re going to borrow from someone, one of the most singular filmmakers of the last 50 years isn’t a bad place to start. The Iranian auteur redefined the medium, eschewing flashy action sequences for quietly complex stories that often left viewers feeling baffled. In his last film to play Cannes, “Like Someone In Love” (2012), a Japanese sex worker listens to seven excruciating voicemails from her grandmother after ditching her for an overnight job. It is heartbreaking, and it takes place entirely in the back of a taxi.
Driving scenes are just one of many Kiarostami hallmarks used in “They;” the child protagonist, use of non-actors, and poetic voiceover are all there as well. But the most profound reference comes from the film’s ambiguous conclusion, which is particularly apt when applied to the complex issue of gender identity. J’s own uncertainty about their gender is a subtlety lacking from most films undertaking a subject that is lately in vogue.
“They” opens with J alone in a doctor’s office, where we learn that the hormone blockers they have been taking to delay puberty are beginning to slow bone growth. Pretty soon, it will be time to make a decision about whether or not start hormone replacement therapy. J has short hair and a pensive, cherubic face. Sporting short, side-parted hair and overall shorts, Ghazvinizadeh smartly plays with gender ambiguity and only reveals J’s birth-assigned gender in subtle ways. When J’s sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and her boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini) pull into the driveway to watch J while their parents are away, Araz is sweetly fretting over how to use the neutral pronoun correctly.
Being from Iran, Araz is not a native English speaker, which adds another layer to the question of the evolution of language. Both Araz and Lauren use the wrong pronouns once: Araz uses “she,” while Lauren uses “he.” It is only when J wears a dress outside of the house, approaching some neighborhood boys somewhat nervously, that their assigned gender becomes apparent. It’s a clever bit of guessing Ghazvinizadeh makes the audience do. (Hopefully they then ask themselves why they needed to know in the first place). By having J’s family mis-gender them, Ghazvinizadeh remains true to reality. But from the generally supportive attitude shown by all of the characters towards J, Ghazvinizadeh chooses to gift her young protagonist with as little friction as possible. This allows her to focus on J’s internal battle.
Like Kiarostami, Ghazvinizadeh has a piercing visual style and a deep appreciation for cinematic storytelling. Cinematographer Caroline Costa’s camera gently follows J as they putter around a verdant greenhouse, or wander the woods in search of the neighbor’s cat, who makes more than a few curious appearances. One point-of-view shot has us looking up at a swaying tree as if we were lying on the ground, absorbing the light as it reaches through fluttering leaves. Another shoots J through a dusty barn window. One of the film’s final shots shows J through the windshield, the passing trees’ reflection over their freckled face peering out from the backseat. You’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful image of contemporary childhood.
The amateur actors handle the dialogue with varying skills, giving an improvisational feel to the mundane scenes of domestic life. Seen through the eyes of a child measuring how they fit into a society that offers them few mirrors, a long scene of Araz’s family’s bustling home life takes on a foreign quality. This is enhanced by the fact that they are all Iranian, and carrying on multiple conversations in Farsi at once. The overlapping dialogue and chaotic children’s games achieve an elusive naturalism.
The one thing lacking from Ghazvinizadeh’s ode to her country’s most renowned filmmaker is the ineffable tension permeating every Kiarostami scene. There is no gut-wrenching voicemail scene in “They,” which floats by on its beautiful imagery and poetic voiceover. J remains a contemplative enigma, though Lauren is able to extract some poignant self-reflection from J in the woods. The film remains at a finely tuned simmer; but nothing bubbles over. There is resolution, but no revelation. But identity is an ever-shifting target, and “They” is comfortable with the in between.
“They” debuted out of competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.