Reeling 2020: “These Thems” is an accessible Queer 101 comedy

These Thems (Reeling 2020) These Thems (Reeling 2020)

The queer-centered YouTube series gets compiled into a winsome feature that works best as a Queer Culture primer.\

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago Internationals LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)

These Thems is an exciting queer festival entry for many reasons: critics have lauded the queer representation of its behind the camera team, and their focus on queer educational comedy defies easy genre categories. As a YouTube series composited together into a “film” of sorts, it also offers interesting questions about tone, medium, and audience.

The series-cum-film primarily follows Gretchen (series creator Gretchen Wylder), a doe-eyed thirtysomething newly realizing her queerness, and her friend/Queer educator Vero (Vico Ortiz). Their immediate circle consists of Kevin (Nick Park), an acerbic post-David Rose white gay, Ti, a soft-spoken but hard-bodied masc spectrum DJ (T.L. Thompson), and the mild-mannered Asher (Shaan Dasani), a straight transman who isn’t out at work. We learn about these identities as the characters learn about them as well in a way that feels informed yet lighthearted even when dealing with the difficult realities these identities face.

Already a festival favorite, it’s clear to see why These Thems is making waves. It directly addresses the conversation about representation that festival circuits, especially queer ones, have been discussing for the past few years. Its cross-over from YouTube also makes it a uniquely accessible work. As I write this, you can go right now to their YouTube channel and watch the whole series for free. Largely unheard of for a festival film.

These Thems (Reeling 2020)
These Thems (Reeling 2020)

Everyone involved also seems exceedingly charming. One gets the sense that these characters are thin ciphers for the actors, which helps with their likeability. Vero and Ti have a particularly alluring draw, and Thompson plays an alluring self-possession that feels genuinely radical. Ortiz is a fully relatable and corny youth counselor-type that makes you smile as you learn.

And it’s Asher’s journey that feels the most consistently compelling throughout the series, Dasani bringing myriad layers of nuance to such a reserved character. It’s an exciting plotline that explicitly deals with the intricacies of the trans coming-out experience. Their sexual orientation is normative, discussed, and open, but their gender is not. The conflict between the two really gets at the unique experiences trans people have. 

The delicacies of this particular plotline are a textbook example of why LGBTQI+ people should write their own stories. Wylder fills the story with details that only a person who has lived that experience would know. This is crucial for the goal Wylder and crew have set for themselves; they become better teachers because they speak from a place of knowing.

…a textbook example of why LGBTQI+ people should write their own stories.

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Having such an educational focus, however, also has the nasty side effect of this series by queers not looking directly at queers. There are moments where the “education” is clearly meant for straight (or questioning) spectators. In this respect, These Thems is a radical queer film, but it doesn’t necessarily imagine a radically queer audience. As a queer viewer, I loved seeing queer names in the credits, but I did not feel like the series was for me because of these moments of elementary queer history, theory, and psychology. For those who also live these lessons, there’s nothing new we can gain from these scenes, which frustratingly make up most of the series-film.

While there’s a necessity to compositing the series together into a screenable “film,” it does rob the audience of the pause between episodes that makes it so crucial for what it’s trying to do. When they’re relaying so much important and actual information, the audience needs a moment to let it soak in. Otherwise, it feels a bit like they’re bashing us overhead with The Queer Encyclopedia. 

As individual episodes, however, These Thems has the power to be a very effective teaching tool. Since each episode presents a queer intersection with a social place (the doctor’s office, the bar, the workplace, ec.), we can use them for tailor-made moments for discussions with friends, family members, or even students. Separately, the series feels like an achievement. Strung together, it feels like an over-achievement. But what remains most exciting about These Thems, no matter the format it’s in, is watching the credits roll, and seeing so many queer artists getting paid. 

These Thems Trailer:

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