Jon Sherman has been a film professor at Kenyon College in Ohio since 2010. He has sought to build up the Columbus, Ohio film community and has often guest lectured at various film screenings held in central Ohio. Sherman has some personal experience with Hollywood, writing and directing his 1996 breakout indie rom-com Breathing Room (starring Dan Futterman!), and then given an even bigger stage with the 2002 rom-com I’m with Lucy (with Monica Potter!). He may be an academic but that filmmaking itch never really goes away, and so that brings us to another Sherman rom-com, 2022’s They/Them/Us, which is available to be viewed nationally through digital release. It’s a charming, offbeat romance with a sweet sensibility and an unexpected kink.
Charlie (Joey Slotnick) is a middle-aged man starting his life over. He’s re-entered the dating scene after a recent divorce, he splits custody of his two teenage children with their mother, and the only job he could find as a film professor is at a conservative Christian university. Lisa (Amy Hargreaves) is a woman in her forties, a successful artist with full custody of her two children, one of whom has recently identified as non-binary (preferring “they/them” pronouns, hence the title). They meet online, have their first date, and are immediately smitten, enough so that Lisa bends her rules about not getting too attached too soon. Charlie and Lisa decide to combine their clans into one modern blended family, and the reunification is a messy and awkward process.
Given Sherman’s background as a film professor, you would hope that if anyone, when given the opportunity to make a feature film, could rise to the occasion, it should be somebody whose career rests upon the analysis of what makes movies work best. They/Them/Us succeeds as a relatively light-hearted rom-com and family drama with several nice moments. It’s hard to quantify, but you know better writing when you witness it, how characters interact and how witty the exchanges are and how much characterization they impart. Typically, a lesser writer will overstay their welcome or begin a scene before the importance. This can also be done to add unique character details, but often it’s a writer not knowing when to start and when to leave, a trait I’ve experienced so many times with Ohio-made indies. With Sherman’s scene writing, everything is to the point and moving, imparting the most important info or character detail, then chugging along. Early on, we establish Charlie as a man struggling to parent two surly teenagers and find someone special online. The fact that in the opening seconds he seems to be messaging two women who have BDSM kinks in their profile should be telling. After Charlie admonishes Danny for smoking pot in his house, he snatches the kid’s bong and runs upstairs, pacing and unsure of what to do next as his breathing calms and he focuses his attention to the bong in hand. Cut to Charlie smoking the bong to relax. It’s a quick, smart detail that demonstrates Charlie’s uncertainty on how to be the stable authority figure with his own dismissive children.
They/Them/Us is also a charming and sex positive romance between two middle-aged divorcees, a subject that rarely gets such big screen attention. The movie touches upon the challenges of modern dating when you’re not just dating a single individual but a person with attachments, about starting over later and finding a new life that will make appropriate space for you. Selecting a common dinner option can be its own minefield. It’s a perspective worthy of more attention by Hollywood. Beyond that angle, the movie is also surprisingly kinky for a “family comedy.” While unrated, They/Them/Us still exists in a more PG-13-friendly universe so it’s rather gentle when it explores the BDSM urges of Lisa. The movie is refreshingly free of judgements though has more than a few grand jokes drawn from Charlie’s squeamishness. He tries to throw himself into a more aggressive role, and Lisa asks him to pull her hair harder, and he says, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m a feminist.” I laughed out loud at that one. Another time, Charlie is attempting to spank Lisa and he keeps hesitating, finally admitting that it keeps bringing up unwanted and uncomfortable memories of spanking his unruly son as a child, something he still feels guilty over. In time, Charlie seeks out advice and instruction on how to be a better BDSM participant, and his educational process is a bit obvious, with more than a few easy gags (no pun intended), but it’s still one borne from a desire to better understand and fulfill his partner. It’s a sweet romance.
Slotnick (Twister, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) has been a staple of TV and movies for decades, a reliable “that guy” with overly neurotic tendencies. He’s a terrific put-upon dad and his age has only added more authenticity to Charlie’s harried struggle. He’s got a warmth to him that is easily conveyed during his brighter, kinder moments, and he’s also got a wellspring of awkward, cringe-inducing comedy as a middle-aged dad trying too hard to connect with a brood of teenagers and often flailing. When he’s genuinely happy, Slotnick genuinely wins you over. I think the vague details about Charlie’s dismissal from his previous professor job are a mistake. We’re told by his ex-wife, who inexplicably is still trying to get him back for the sake of the children, that a coed sent Charlie inappropriate texts. That topic is way too big not to clarify, and it’s also strange that Sherman and co-writer and partner Melissa Vogley Woods never come back to this as a conflict with his new relationship. It also seems like a natural point of conflict for keeping his new position at the Christian college and yet it’s glossed over (the resolution over that is laughably too tidy and convenient but keeping with the low stakes).
Hargreaves (13 Reasons Why, Homeland) is very enjoyable as the more experienced and confident half of this blended relationship. Lisa knows what she likes and is not ashamed, and she’s patient with Charlie as he attempts to reach her on her level. Hargreaves has a fun spirit to her that doesn’t veer into exploitation. It would be easy for Sherman to just write her as a fetish object for Charlie, but Lisa comes across as a real woman with her own desires and doubts and questions. There’s a scene where Lisa and Charlie are talking after their less-than-stellar first date with the combined family unit, and Lisa’s children are impatiently waiting by the locked car. “Come one, mom,” they whine. “You have the keys.” In mid-sentence, Hargreaves just hurls the car keys to her children and then continues her conversation with Charlie without missing a beat. It’s a defiant, petulant, lovely moment that keys the audience into her devotion to Charlie and her own character. I adored it.
Lexie Bean, as Maddie, and Jack Steiner as Danny, are both acting breakthroughs. Both of the actors are so natural and with a great poise and presence. Steiner has minimal acting experience but could easily headline a movie with the sly charisma and comic timing he displays. He even finds a way to enliven one of the least funny segments in comedies, the drug trip. Bean has notable, obvious talent that I regret that They/Them/Us doesn’t draw more upon.
There is one significant critique I do have with They/Them/Us and that’s that this all feels like a far better fit for a television series than as a single film. Rare do I come across a story engine that seems like it has the output to keep going, but that’s what we have here. There are three significant storylines that all would have benefited with far more time and development that a wider field of narrative writing would afford: 1) at its core, this is a story about a blended family and all the troubles and revelations and connections that come from two established families suddenly sharing spaces and lives, 2) Charlie working at a conservative Christian university and having to awkwardly pose as devout while hiding his true feelings, and 3) it’s a BDSM rom-com.
Taken as a whole, it’s easy to see how those storylines could form the backbone of a series-long narrative. Charlie’s facade at work could get more and more complex to carry on, and as his secret gets discovered, more desperate. He could also experiment more with wanting to become sexually adventurous for his partner. There could even be the question over whether he was having an affair when he was really just getting one-on-one instruction with a helpful dominatrix to educate himself. That might sound like a generic sitcom contrivance, but the script makes plenty of these kinds of conflicts and too-easy resolutions. When Maddie refuses to eat, Charlie sits with them, and within literal seconds Maddie is confessing a teacher is deliberately misgendering them and it hurts. Charlie’s solution is to get donuts, and it’s during his exchange with the drive-thru intercom that he makes a heartfelt stand about Maddie being non-binary and preferred pronouns, and then it’s like we’ve wrapped up that conflict in a bow. It’s so absurdly quick, and these characters have not had a conversation together before this, that we’ve seen, so its resolution feels so abrupt as to be arbitrary. That’s where a TV series would allow these characters and their inter-family drama to really take shape. An entire episode could be devoted to Charlie trying, and awkwardly failing, to bond with Maddie, finding a small triumph at the end that would feel better earned. This goes especially in the last twenty minutes when Danny’s drug problems get way too serious for the film’s tone. For most of its running time, They/Them/Her has such a low-stakes sense about all of its family drama, keeping things light and loose. It can’t quite make that leap to melodrama that encapsulates the end of the movie, a transition that doesn’t feel properly established.
When you’re dealing with human relationships, and with the battleground that a blended family would present, then squeezing everything into a measly 90 minutes feels like a disservice. At one point, Charlie and Lisa ask if they’re rushing things, going too fast, and they agree to move in together at the twenty-minute mark, but it’s almost like an admission to the audience about the movie. Everything is moving just too fast. We need the time to slow down, to really luxuriate in the awkwardness and unexpected connections, and the kind of narrative berths where each character can feel more fleshed out and less defined by a single note of distinction (the Non-Binary child, the Drug Problem child, the Sarcastic child, the Blame Shifter, etc.). I still enjoyed these characters and their interactions, but I would have enjoyed them even more with a larger scope to appreciate the depth and eccentricities of each person.
They/Them/Us is a rather wholesome movie that doesn’t feel like it’s talking down to its audience, judging its characters punitively, or overly sugar-coating their personal dilemmas. It’s not a particularly challenging movie but Sherman and his cohorts know what kind of movie they want to make. It’s technically proficient, assuredly low-budget but still professional in presentation. I often enjoyed the musical score by David Carbonara (Mad Men – what a get this guy was). While some subplots and conflicts are so swiftly and conveniently handled, the core of this charming movie remains its fractious, funny, and all too human relationships. When my biggest complaint stems from wanting more, more of these people, more of their adjustments and misunderstandings and triumphs, and more comic possibilities from a larger time frame of stories, then you’ve done something right with your 90 minutes of movie and clearly not everyone can accomplish even that.
Nate’s Grade: B