Indie Film Friday: “They Look Like People” (2015)

Still from THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (2015)

Wyatt, Mara and Christian are the three central characters in THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (2015) — image source: official film press kit

The title They Look Like People (2015) sounds like a B-horror from the 1950s. Actually, it’s a contemporary psychological drama. It blends psychological mystery, sci-fi, horror and thriller tropes into a dramatic storyline. Indie writer-director Perry Blackshear uses this genre blend to focus on the social malaise of young urban professionals. All of them “look like people”. All of them are also “aliens” — they’re all alienated from each other. But only one of them can say that this situation is beyond his/her control.

Stripped down to its essentials, the narrative is about male friendship. In contemporary Brooklyn, Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) runs into childhood buddy and current yuppie Christian (Evan Dumouchel) on the street. Wyatt looks like a vagabond, but Christian pretends to buy his story that he’s visiting some friends in the area. Wyatt ends up staying at Christian’s place in a gentrified building, where they catch up with each other’s lives.

Both have recently come close to marriage, only to end up alone after their heterosexual relationships failed. In the aftermath, Christian has focused on becoming a “new me”. He’s preoccupied with succeeding in his career through “dominating” at work. On the subway, he tunes out the world and listens to motivational recordings made by his “ex” before they broke up: stuff like “I am a mountain”, etc. By contrast, Wyatt fled his fiancee after becoming convinced that she had transformed into a demon — the result of an ages-old conspiracy by evil forces that want to take over the world.

Wyatt’s paranoid beliefs sound delusional, but Christian plays along at first. Both men focus on recapturing their previous friendship at the level of preadolescence. This retreat into homosocial immaturity helps them to deny their problems as young adults. On the first night of Wyatt’s “crashing” with Christian, the latter has a first date with Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), his supervisor at work. Instead of going along with Wyatt’s socially-appropriate offer to hang out alone at Christian’s place, Christian forces Mara at the last minute to find a friend to be Wyatt’s date.

It’s clear that Christian both desires Mara and hates her for rising to become his supervisor after joining the company years after he did. On some level, Mara understands this dynamic, so they have a strange attraction-repulsion in their interactions. Mara has become an expert in judo, which she uses primarily as a defense against male aggression. There’s also a social judo that takes place between Christian and Mara, most evident in their awkward parting after a disastrous first date. After Christian hesitates to kiss her goodnight, she tells him, “Don’t get any ideas”; he answers, “Don’t flatter yourself.”

Meanwhile, Wyatt’s hallucinations and delusions worsen. He begins preparing for Armageddon in Christian’s basement workshop. The narrative then careens towards a psychosocial apocalypse in which Wyatt’s psychotic world merges with the so-called real world. If Blackshear hadn’t used horror, sci-fi, and thriller tropes, this plot development just wouldn’t have worked. Its existential and gender conflict themes would have been too overpowering.

As it is, it’s a delight to watch. The tight focus on three characters and the sparing but clever use of horror imagery, sound and musical score make the viewer forget that this is a low-budget production (supported by a grant from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) shot mainly in and around one apartment in Brooklyn. In particular, one shot-reverse shot scene involving Wyatt and Christian made me jump at the horror of the former’s vision, which connects it to their shared terror of women.

The resolution of this horror of alienation is redemptive on the level of male friendship but leaves the question of paranoid heterosexual relationships open. In the scene that the audience writes in its mind — the one after the film ends — will women still be demons who have to be defeated so that men can reassure themselves that they are still people?

They Look Like People is currently available on Netflix.