They / Them (2022)

AUGUST 5, 2022


Ideally, every movie would be a slasher, far as I'm concerned. There's no other sub-genre of film I am more endeared to, and as we've seen from Freaky and Happy Death Day, it's a great way to reinvigorate another sub-genre, by just adding a masked killer to the proceedings (of a body swap comedy and a Groundhog Day scenario, respectively). But alas, the movie They/Them ultimately only really served one purpose for me: proving that throwing a wannabe Jason Voorhees into another movie - in this case, a drama about a LGBTQ "conversion camp" - doesn't work at all, with one half of the equation ultimately canceling out whatever good could have come from the other. Ironically, I've been converted! I was wrong to think a masked killer can make anything work!

In the film, a group of queer teens (all of whom are played by actual queer actors from what I understand) arrive at one of those nefarious camps where the counselors will hopefully wipe out their sinful gay ways (these places actually exist, by the way - feel free to torch them during the offseason if you get a chance). Usually they're run by Christian wackos, but as head counselor Kevin Bacon explains quickly, they're not like that - "This will be the last time you hear "God" here" he says, almost immediately making us wonder what their deal is, then. If it's not a religious thing, who the hell cares if they're gay or not? Well apparently he can't change that, but does want to help them "fit in" better by boosting their skills along gender divides circa 1950 - teaching the men how to hunt and the women how to bake a pie (for the men to eat). Basically he seems to be saying that they can eat their cake and have it too with just some guidance from him and his team.

But he clearly doesn't support trans kids, forcing a non-binary (but clearly "male from birth") to board with the boys and later making one girl stay in the boy's cabin as well when it's discovered she hasn't had her transition. He occasionally shows a lighter, "we're not so different" side to him (bonding with the most outwardly flamboyant boy about their love of show tunes, for example), but his passive aggressive use of the wrong pronouns and such never let us forget he's, you know, doing more harm than good for these kids. Folks made a big deal of Bacon "returning to his roots" (summer camps + Bacon = Friday the 13th, of course) but I actually kept thinking about White Water Summer, the '80s movie where Bacon ran an outdoors adventure thing where he took a quartet of boys and taught them survival skills, but went kind of crazy and ended up terrorizing them. It's clear the same thing is going to happen here: the challenges from the kids (like when the non-binary "boy" wears a dress) are going to get to him and he's gonna drop all pretense of being on their side.

That movie probably would have been fine on its own, but before we even meet Bacon we meet another counselor who is on her way to the camp when she is murdered by a masked stranger, so we know that there's something else going on. The slasher element is very sparse until the movie's final 20 minutes, and after the second kill it's clear that the murderer is only after the counselors. This "rule" basically breaks the movie; we know the kids aren't in any danger, and we also know that it's not Bacon doing all of this, because why would he be masked to corner his own employees one by one and off them? But there's literally only one character it can possibly be: the lone counselor who is sympathetic to the teens and is also introduced as a last minute hire (which, again, makes the mask pointless, but one can assume the other employees wouldn't let their guard down as much around someone they just met as they would around Bacon. There's also the possibility that someone watching is dumb enough to think the killer might be one of the kids, so there's that).

The complete failure of the slasher element keeps the camp drama from working as much as it should. For starters, the attention they need to pay to it, even though it's brief, means some of the kids never get a chance to really shine. Or even speak in some cases; once a body is discovered and everyone goes into high alert, one of the main teens is tasked with taking six others (who have never even been identified by name, let alone given a "moment") to safety, at which point I realized how tone deaf it was to focus a movie on a group who struggle to be heard and then leave half of them as glorified extras. My only guess as to why they were in the movie at all was to pad the numbers out for anyone watching and thinking "How can this place be profitable with only seven kids per season?" But they're not the only ones who get short-changed; one girl is actually there by choice, as she desperately wants to fit in and please her parents, but her arc is basically forgotten once the slashing starts up for real. The obligatory closeted jock starts a relationship with the flamboyant kid out of nowhere, making a moment where he cheats on him fall completely flat as it wasn't clear he was allegedly committed to the other boy beforehand. And with the killer not interested in them, it honestly feels like two different movies jammed together; only the main kid actually interacts with the murderer, during the standard whodunit climactic scene where they explain why they're doing this (but sadly without explaining why they let some of the kids be tortured - and a dog get killed as part of a "manhood test" - before bothering to start their revenge plan).

Something interesting happens after the bodies are discovered though: Bacon drops his tough guy act and is quick to agree that they need to get all the kids to safety. Maybe because I had White Water Summer on the brain, but I expected he'd just go crazier at this point and drag some of them into the line of fire as another "test" or something, but no - however misguided he may be, he does seem to have some kind of protective nature to him. So I couldn't help but think if they found a body earlier - like the halfway point - and let the rest of the movie play out on that note, it might have worked. Like, he gets injured and the kids have to save him, and he realizes that gay or straight doesn't matter, everyone's human... hamfisted? Sure! But at least it'd WORK, and actually combine the two plot threads in a meaningful way.

As I sighed my way through the movie (I haven't even mentioned the P!nk sing-along) I had to keep reminding myself that as a straight white male I will never understand what it's like to be really oppressed and judged for being different, and because of that perhaps I was just missing something. So I did what I rarely do, and looked at some opinions of others before writing my own, specifically some gay friends who had watched it, and... if anything, they liked it even less than I did. Some were even downright angry at how misguided it was (personal favorite, someone saying that the only thing less successful than a conversion camp was this screenplay). Everyone seems to agree that it's actually kind of a win that the movie even exists, and there are some galaxy brain takes of course (someone noting that this story isn't writer/director John Logan's to tell - the man outed himself as gay decades ago! You think it's risky to do that *now*? The man has been through some shit, I'm sure), but it's frustrating that it couldn't also have been, you know, good. I give it a few points for the solid cast and a suitably creepy mask for the killer, but ultimately movies like Freaky do more to advance LGBTQ acceptance with side characters than this one manages when it's the entire focus.

What say you?


  1. "forcing a non-binary (but clearly "male from birth") - I think by this you mean the main character, Jordan. If so, for what it's worth, the actor was actually born female. I read the character that way as well in that moment during the film. That's why when Bacon's character moved the trans female character into the boys cabin he made a point of saying he had respected Jordan's transition (and placed them in the boys cabin in accordance with their identity) because they were honest with him, but was not respecting Alexandra's transition/identity because she had not been similarly honest.

  2. Ah, thank you! I wasn't sure the difference. Still learning!

  3. Also the victim in the intro was a new hire(the killer assumed her identity) and had never set foot at the camp prior. For me this breaks the “the kills are justified” Schlick of the killer. She could just have been a nurse desperate for a job! Sloppy!


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