They/Them (2022)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emily Fear is a librarian in Western PA. You can hear her weekly on the women’s wrestling podcast Grit & Glitter, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all major platforms.

There is an incredible scene late in the film adaptation of Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post where Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) confronts Reverend Rick about the practices at God’s Promise, a conversion camp set in remote rural Montana. She demands to know what happened to one of her fellow residents, a young man named Mark who nearly died in an act of extreme self-harm. Rick confesses what happened but cannot account for why, cannot accept responsibility for what pushed Mark to harm himself so grievously. 

Cameron realizes out loud that neither Rick nor his therapist sister have any idea of what they’re actually doing at God’s Promise. They have no concept of the damage they are responsible for, the continued emotional and spiritual violence they are inflicting upon the young people in their care. They believe they are doing the right things for the right purpose. But pushed to explain Mark’s actions, Rick does not have an answer and instead breaks down. Cameron does not comfort her abuser.

In a lesser film, this scene would be played at top volume, the sensitive Rick turning cruel heel to Cameron’s quiet derision of his actions. Instead, the characters act like people, not archetypes. There is horror underneath this scene, both of the self-violence that Cameron and RIck just witnessed, and the larger sense that something is terribly wrong with the mission of God’s Purpose. 

There is more palpable, unsettling tension in this one scene than there is in the entirety of They/Them, a new direct to Peacock film about a slasher terrorizing Camp Whistler, a conversion camp run by Own (Kevin Bacon) and a small team of insidious closet-bigots, save the new nurse, Molly (Anna Chlumsky), who seems far too empathetic to be in on the darker methods employed by her boss and his staff. 

The campers, a varied mix of queer and trans young adults, exit the bus and are greeted by Owen who assures them that they are not here to force them to change, that there will be no Bible talk, and that he accepts them all for who they are. He insists that this is a welcoming place, no judgment, all respect and honesty. This is, of course, bullshit, as nonbinary camper, Jordan (Theo Germaine), is quick to suss out. 

Things escalate at the camp within 24 hours, from sociable if mildly interrogative group therapy on the first day to outing a transgender camper and placing her in the boys cabin to leaving handcuffed pairs of campers in the woods by themselves overnight… etc. Meanwhile, a masked stalker looms, having already dispensed of a motorist in the opening scene. By thirty minutes in, that kill remains the only one, unless you count the death-by-cringe scene of the impromptu musical performance of Pink’s “Fucking Perfect.”

The pattern of the kills is easy enough to recognize, so the real horror is the abuse of the campers by the Camp Whistler staff. The movie makes a wise swerve in the decision to fuel the zeal of Owen’s enterprise with biological essentialism instead of outright religious bigotry. However, the manipulation and torture (mostly emotional, later actually both sexual and physical) remains basically the same.

The young actors portraying the traumatized campers do their best to add dimension to their characters, some succeeding more than others. Germaine is especially good at steely eyed resilience with just the right notes of vulnerability mixed in. Quei Tann’s performance feels almost effortless, she is transcendent even when the script requires her character to fall back on cliches. The rest of the young cast is uniformly solid and the audience will root for them even as they’re rooting more for the movie to be over.

There are threads of a better movie here, but nothing – not the script, not the characters, not the suspense, not the gore – rises above the level of a Lifetime original movie. It might have been better if director John Logan and the team behind They/Them had leaned into the camp and went full on Peaches Christ in their queer slasher. 

Sadly, the film aims for some odd mix of suspense and earnestness, failing on both counts. The pay off is especially troubling and will likely disappoint and even anger the majority of this film’s queer audience. Failing as a competent slasher, failing as a queer empowerment horror, failing as a cheesy, campy mess, They/Them just… fails.

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