Section: Arts

Jonathan Sherman’s “They/Them/Us” makes festival debut

“They / Them / Us,” a romantic comedy produced entirely in Columbus, Ohio during the summer of 2020, had its national premiere in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 2021 at the acclaimed Dances With Film independent film festival.

For protagonist Charlie Goldman (Joey Slotnick), life simply has to go on. He has been fired from his last job as a film professor because his wife (Abi Van Andel) reported him to the college administration for not “reacting appropriately” to the sexual advances of a student. His marriage is just an additional casualty. Luckily, he has found a new job; the only downside is that he has to pose as a born-again Christian at “Ohio Evangelical University.” 

The first minutes of “They / Them / Us,” the latest feature film by Jonathan Sherman, associate professor of film, show Charlie venturing  into the online dating scene, while his daughter Anna (Shanna Strong) — the “good kid” — tries to remind him that he needs to keep his younger child Danny’s (Jack Steiner) worrisome drug problem on his radar. 

At the 2021 San Diego International Film Festival, “They / Them / Us” was awarded Best Comedy Feature. It also won Best Low-Budget Feature Film at the Paris Independent Film Festival 2021. On Oct. 29, 2021, it was finally shown to a Columbus audience at the sold-out Lincoln Theatre in the King Lincoln district of the city. 

At the heart of the film’s screenplay, co-written by Sherman and his wife, Melissa Vogley Woods, is the romance between Goldman and Lisa Harper (Amy Hargreaves), a local Columbus artist whom Charlie eventually meets on a dating website, and the unpredictable waters they have to navigate blending their families together, as Lisa has two children of her own.

During their first passionate physical encounters, Lisa drops hints at a “wilder side” of her sexuality. This opens a door into one of the most important, and, indeed, praiseworthy, aspects of Sherman’s comedy, as the film allows for a glimpse into the Columbus kink scene to which Lisa belongs. What is laudable about the approach in “They / Them / Us” is that it presents the kink community as joyful and open-minded. It’s a welcome change to the stuffy darkness with which more edgy sexual encounters are shown in movies such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” or the like.

While the comedy has a very realistic feel throughout, the viewer should not underestimate the artistically sophisticated formal components of the movie. One of those sophisticated moments surfaces when Charlie starts borrowing from the language of the spiritual aspects of “kink” (with which he becomes familiar through Lisa) whenever he has to talk about faith in the context of his job at the Christian college. The subject matter contained in “They / Them / Us” creates many temptations for a movie to be preachy or message-laden: rushing into a relationship, consumption of drugs, parenting. However, Sherman and Vogley Woods masterfully avoid falling into that trap. 

“They / Them / Us” doesn’t provide lessons; it tells a story which, for the most part, is laden with laughs and humor. If there’s one idea that hovers above the narrative of this comedy, it is the experiment: You have to be willing to jump into one if you want to move forward after the seemingly unavoidable breakdowns during middle age. Might there be glitches? Sure. But there also may be opportunities to laugh about them.


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