They/Them: Split, by Tyler Smith
John Logan’s They/Them is a film with a lot of ideas, though none are particularly fresh. It is a film about the evils of gay conversion camps, which have already been discussed in recent films such as Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Covering familiar ground is hardly a crime, especially when dealing with as horrendous a topic as this, but Logan has nothing particularly new to say about it. Instead, he tries to find novelty in his attempts to construct a compelling horror movie around the story. While embedding an important message in a genre can make for effective filmmaking, They/Them never does quite enough to incorporate the horror elements into its style, leaving the audience with a muddled drama that occasionally incorporates sensational elements. The resulting film – Logan’s first outing as a director – is well-intentioned, but artistically-confused; more like an experiment than an actual attempt at engaging storytelling.
The story begins when a number of LGBTQ teenagers arrive at a gay conversion camp, run by the seemingly-sympathetic Owen (Kevin Bacon), who states that he has no judgment for them, but is trying to help them find their true selves. Each camper has their own reason for being there, though most have been sent by their parents. One such character is Jordan (Theo Germaine), who is non-binary and at the camp as part of an agreement with their parents. Jordan and Owen butt heads on numerous occasions as the more insidious methods of the camp are revealed. Meanwhile, a masked killer is murdering the camp employees one by one. With each new camp revelation, the killings increase in their frequency and severity.
There is a good horror movie at the core of They/Them, but Logan seems incapable of unearthing it. While he may have approached the horror elements as a sort of Trojan horse, ultimately treating the slasher aspects as peripheral to the terror of gay conversion therapy, the film lacks the crucial stylistic and tonal elements to sell them. Instead, the movie too often feels like a straightforward drama with some B-level horror imagery thrown in as an afterthought. As a result, the film is disjointed, never fully committing to its concept. The horror subplot isn’t really explored but is given enough time to intrude on the drama, keeping the audience from really investing in either element.
The cast does what it can, imbuing the characters with real humanity. Each camper is in a different place emotionally, at varying levels of self-acceptance, and the actors fully convey this frustration. As Jordan, Theo Germaine plays the underlying anger of somebody who is perpetually misunderstood – and often dismissed – by the rest of the world. It would be easy for Germaine and the rest of the young cast to play their characters as sainted, but they’re too talented to go the obvious route. Instead, they understand that a character being sympathetic doesn’t necessarily mean they’re perfect. These are lived-in performances that, frankly, belong in a better movie.
The eternally-underrated Kevin Bacon seems to understand how best to bridge the gap between the social drama and the horror, even if the film doesn’t. Somehow he’s able to play a grounded, realistic character while still suggesting deeper, more sadistic tendencies. In his opening speech, Owen seems genial and understanding, which is what makes the character all the more insidious. Were he to play him as a monster from the outset, the larger criticisms of gay conversion could fall apart. It’s precisely those that would appear sympathetic that one should be most suspicious of, and Bacon walks that line beautifully.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of its cast and best intentions of its director, They/Them is a genre experiment that never quite pays off. Rather than feeling like a satisfying blend of tones, it is instead a film that is pulled in too many directions. John Logan has shown himself a very capable writer elsewhere, but his directorial debut is a misfire.