“They/Them” is a camp slasher film with a social commentary, or at least that is the intention with which the film was made. Unfortunately, neither does the slasher element prove effective, nor does the social commentary. Perhaps, the creators were doubtful about the story and approached Kevin Bacon because they knew he would be able to establish the character he played, one that was the pseudo-protagonist of the film, so to speak, and thus pull the film off. The story isn’t interesting, and the creators seem to have knowingly just scratched the surface in terms of showcasing sexuality and its different forms, almost to the point where one might just deny addressing the film as a social commentary. It is more of an excuse to use the motif of gender neutrality to give a typical, predictable thriller a cringe-worthy bubble to live in, one that bursts very soon. It is up to the viewer to take away whatever he or she wants from the film, but the fact is, there isn’t much to take away, if at all.
What Happens In ‘They/Them’ Film?
A group of queer teenagers, including our main characters, Jordan (Theo Germaine), Toby (Austin Crute), Stu (Cooper Koch), Alexandra (Quei Tann), Veronica (Monique Kim), Kim (Anna Lore), and Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro), arrive at a secluded Gay Conversion Camp, Camp Whistler, to come out of their insecurities and the issues they are facing. The camp is run by Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon) and his team, including Molly (Anna Chlumsky), Zane (Boone Platt), Sarah (Hayley Griffith), and Cora (Carrie Preston). Whistler makes their aim clear at the very beginning, i.e., to help the teenagers find “a new kind of peace”; to be a more normal version of themselves. While the team appears polite at first, their politeness pretty soon starts to fade and reveal the absurdity that lies underneath. All of them are made to spend a night in the woods on their own. The counselor is more like a bully who reminds them of how they “will never be good enough.” The girls are reinforced with traditional roles of women in society, e.g., making a pie. The boys are made to shoot targets to show them their primordial role, i.e., to hunt and kill. And when one of the teenagers finds pictures of previous visitors with scars on their bodies, they decide to escape from the place. However, leaving is not an easy thing to do when Whistler and his crew are bound to purge them of their queerness. And with a killer on the loose, things take a more drastic turn. Will the teenagers be able to escape from the camp? It is for “They/Them” to figure out.
Isolation and Hiding
At the beginning of the film, we see a woman driving, as we later find out, to the camp. She is listening to a podcast, and a woman is talking about isolation and a sense of unease in the wilderness, among other things. If we think about it, these words almost set the stage for what is about to come. The teenagers arrive at an isolated place. They eventually begin feeling uneasy in the wilderness in the middle of which they are. Furthermore, the lady driving is murdered by a masked person, who is later revealed to be Angie Phelps, another woman who, when she was a teen, was subjected to the same treatment at Camp Whistler.
Clearly, the camp is more like an isolated facility to “treat” teenagers who believe they are queer. It is made clear that most, if not all, of the teenagers, have been sent to the camp by their parents. So the choice of the teens is an illusion here. They are not there to be themselves and be proud of it, but to be made into traditional societal men and women. And this is done both mentally and physically.
What’s ironic is that even two of the crew members, Zane and Sarah, are queer, but since they have to abide by the rules of the camp, they have figured out a way to satisfy their sexual needs by using each other. This means that contrary to Whistler, who claims that both Zane and Sarah have come out of their queer selves, they have been hiding it unlike the teens who have come here to learn how to live with it. This, in turn, can be the reason why both Zane and Sarah take pleasure in their ways of misbehaving with the teens, and venting their rage out (the rage of not being able to be their true self); Zane by electrocuting Stu, and Sarah by provoking Kim. And it can easily be said that they have done it earlier as well, with other queer teenagers. After all, the Whistler camp is quite old, keeping in mind that Angie Phelps was 13 when Whistler mistreated her.
The Forbidden Fruit
In the film, Gabriel has been put in the group by Whistler to provoke Stu, which he does. Gabriel, according to Whistler, is his “forbidden fruit” whose bite Stu took, and it becomes his final act before he is purged. The fact that Whistler uses the phrase means that he considers himself as God who is supposed to punish the guilty, who, in this case, are queer teenagers. That Stu and Gabriel both get naked and physical also relates to Adam and Eve, which is a brave queer take on a biblical level.
During Jordan’s therapy session, Cora too provokes him and tells him that no matter how much he tries, his parents will always be disappointed in him unless he “drops this [queer] nonsense.” But it is what she says before this that is of more significance. She tells Jordan that if only she had been born in his generation, she would have become a boy too. Now, if she is queer, she too has been able to either put that side away forever or, like Zane and Sarah, learned to hide it as well. Moreover, her “different” nature is what perhaps led her to opt out of the navy. But if she isn’t a queer, her anger at Jordan being gay rises from the fact that she wanted to be a boy so as to not disappoint her parents, whose other sons (Cora’s brothers) were in the navy. And the rage with which she speaks to Jordan, in all probability, roots in the fact that Jordan, whose attraction towards males is something that gives her a feminine characteristic (or makes her a woman like Cora), is but a boy who is someone her parents wouldn’t be disappointed in. In this way, Cora is putting herself in Jordan’s position. Thus, it can be said that she hates Jordan just as much as she hates herself.
‘They/Them’ Ending Explained: Why Does Angela Phelps Kill Whistler?
The ending isn’t explicitly revenge-based. The woman whom we came to know as Molly in the beginning, turns out to be Angela Phelps, another victim of the Whistler camp. As a teenager, she too was brutally treated by Whistler. She has finally come back for revenge and kills all the other members of the camp crew.
Jordan decides that nobody will decide for him who he is “ever again.” So in a way, Jordan is, in fact, purged of his insecure self and doesn’t need any saving. Moreover, four of the teenagers who came to the camp to vent themselves out and to “fit in” leave the place healed and as lovers no less, Toby and Stu, and Veronica and Kim.
Easter Egg: Before killing Whistler, Molly tells him that he turned children hollow. This seems to be an Easter egg for one of Kevin Bacon’s most famous films, Hollow Man (2000), one of the best thrillers, if not horror films, of the last decade.
“They/Them” is a 2022 Slasher film streaming on Peacock TV with subtitles.