The new Horror film-social commentary picture “They/Them” is the very definition of a missed opportunity.
What could have been a scathing indictment of the sickening practice of “gay conversion therapy” mixed with an empowering portrayal of the LTBGQ+ community, becomes a muddled and confused slasher flick void of originality.
The great Kevin Bacon (one of our best character actors for much of his career) is Owen Whistler, the head of the Whistler Camp, whose motto is “RESPECT. RENEW. REJOICE.” The so-called camp is a place where young people are sent for conversion therapy. Owen Whistler is the face of this operation.
Bacon’s character is off-putting in his pleasant demeanor. As he explains to this group of young strangers who have been sent to the retreat by their families, “I can’t make you straight. I don’t want to make you straight. Gay people are A-OK with me. “
Bacon sells these lines and owns this moment, giving the young LGBTQ+ “campers” a false sense of trust. The man is disarmingly welcoming and seems unexpectedly tolerant. This guy feels more like a modern-day peacenik than a conversion therapy nut job. But the audience knows better. There is a monster behind that smile.
Kevin Bacon is magnificent in this well written scene and gives one hope for the film to follow. Alas, once the speech is finished and Whistler sends everyone to their respective cabins, so goes much of the film’s creative spark.
As the first day continues, we meet many of the young people who have no idea what is in store for them.
Jordan (Theo Germaine), a non-binary trans person whose pronouns are they/them and Alexandra (Quei Tann) are the acting standouts. The whole cast is very good, but these two characters are written more completely and include scenes of dialogue that allow the two performers to really dig into their characters.
Austin Crute does very well as the fashion loving Broadway obsessed Toby who made a deal with his parents that if he spent a week at the camp, he could go see “Moulin Rouge” in New York.
Veronica (Monique Kim), a bisexual who might not be there for the reason she claims, Kim (Anna Lore), a girl from a rich community who fears ruin if people learn she is gay, and Stu (Cooper Koch), a college-bound jock who is in supreme denial round out the main cast.
In a huge screenplay blunder, a half-dozen other campers get zero speaking lines. Seeing them hovering around in the background of important scenes is frustrating. Either give them something to do or don’t write them into the film.
Moment by frustrating moment, writer/director John Logan’s film becomes a hodgepodge of themes and styles that flails around looking for a place to land, ultimately failing at almost everything it tries to be.
While the main characters have some weight to their emotional design, the script doesn’t have the richness to complete the dramatic character arcs it draws, failing the strong cast.
The slasher film qualities are so scattershot, they fail to excite. There are many horror-esque set ups, but no payoffs beyond the standard whodunnit regarding the killer. To anyone paying attention, this can be figured out mid-film.
The scenes of romantic revelations are half-assed cliché while two graphic sex scenes come out of nowhere, halting the tone of their respective moments. This critic is no prude and I continue to argue in favor of more sexuality in today’s reserved Hollywood movies. The problem here is how the director shoots them.
Both sex scenes have quick set ups void of any allure or eroticism. The two couples go right from quick kisses to pure sex. This is how it is done in soft core flicks found on late night cable. As this film wants to show modern sexuality in an honest light, the design of these two moments betrays the director’s intentions.
The film’s most bizarrely out of place moment comes when the entire cabin bursts into an obviously well-rehearsed singalong of Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect”. It is a ridiculous and embarrassing sequence that plays like a rejected number from “High School Musical”. Had this film premiered in theaters, audiences would have been legion in their gasps.
Writer/director John Logan has done great work in the past and is one of American cinema’s most prolific and sought-after screenwriters. Oscar nominated for his work on Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and “Hugo”, his other screenplays include among others, Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” (his first produced feature), Ed Zwick’s “The Last Samurai”, and the two Daniel Craig 007 films “Skyfall” and “Spectre”.
It is astonishing that a screenwriter of Logan’s caliber can’t seem to find the proper tone for this film, nor does he expand on any of the ideas put forth in his screenplay.
Perhaps he should have taken notes from Ryan Murphy, whose “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens” series are the perfect storm of horror, eroticism, dark comedy, and positive LGBTQ+ representation.
Or maybe Kevin Smith who showed real maturity and wit in his “Red State”, an effective horror film that took on religious bigotry and fanatacism.
Logan’s film finds some success in its commentary on the continued persecution of the LGBTQ+ communities and in its inclusive nature regarding casting, but this doesn’t hide the screenplay’s multiple personality disorder. The message gets lost in a stormy sea of uneven styles and tonal shifts that never come together.
With too much working against it, “They/Them” is a failure.
Ambition to tell inclusive stories through different genres is one thing, but it must be met with focus and skill.
John Logan has proven himself efficient at both. I am not sure what failed him here.
Written and Directed by John Logan
Starring Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, Theo Germaine, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Ana Lore, Cooper Koch, Darwin del Fabro
TV-MA, 90 Minutes, Blumhouse Productions