They Look Like People
Dir: Perry Blackshear
How many times have we seen a film that shows a mentally ill person, and that person is either played for laughs, or just generally undercharacterized and ill-attended? There are very few films that truly, properly tackle mental illness—particularly that of the delusional and the schizophrenic—accurately or in-depth. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Forrest Gump, there are many more of the Jack and Radio ilk. Though there are some notable exceptions, many attempts at tackling brain defects and psychosis in film rely upon shoving mental illness in as either a hamfisted attempt at character development, or in worse cases, using psychosis as a crutch in the narrative. Many films often show a lack of not just empathy, but a lack of respect towards the portrayal of mental illness in film, as many horror films, psychological thrillers, and even dark comedies play up this particular angle for little more than the inherent shock value or cheap gimmick that comes with the issue itself.
Enter They Look Like People, an indie film from first time director, writer and cinematographer Perry Blackshear, which has continued to fly under the radar ever since its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival over a year ago. It's since been added to Netflix streaming, where it has been a little more exposed to a broader audience, but it hasn't joined the cult-following ranks of indie horror success stories such as It Follows or The Witch. Produced on a much smaller budget and with much less visual and audible flair than the other two aforementioned efforts, They Look Like People thrives on its sublety and its character drama. Though the makeup of the film takes the mantle of psychological horror, it bucks conventions by presenting its narrative as that of a story of love, friendship, and trust. Most importantly, it showcases a phenomenal display of delusional behavior, while contextualizing the effect this behavior has not only on its victim, but upon the victim's friends and loved ones.
Wyatt, the prodigal son of the film, returns to his hometown for a few brief days, reconnecting with his former best friend, the ironically named Christian, along the way. Both lead characters' goals are explored in depth early on in the film. While Christian attempts to lead a more normal life free of delusion—asking a cute girl from his office out, vying for a promotion, working out, and listening to self-help tapes to motivate himself—Wyatt's spending his time getting phone calls from ethereal sources, hearing doomsday messages in the wind, and generally having a scary time preparing for an oncoming holy war. Though Wyatt's issues are more extravagant, and Christian's issues more mundane, both men suffer from mental strain together, and in several ways, become closer to one another. Without giving away where the narrative ultimately comes to a head, these two elements of the narrative, contextualized perfectly between the two adjacent leads, come together in a mature and emotionally resonant way.
They Look Like People's marketing campaign, while effective, has proven misleading. It's a testament to the craftsmanship of the film that it's at its best when it's exploring its character dynamics rather than its dream sequences or its scenes of delusion. While Blackshear as a director wears his Lynchian influence on his sleeve, the filmmaker never quite pushes himself over the edge into abstract, anguished psychedelia. Rather, Blackshear is content with letting his characters linger on the edge of madness, filming his scenes always on the brink of chaos, continuously testing the audience's reserve, and in this, he shows that he can provide tension. These two directorial qualities—the ability to explore character dynamics in depth, and his skill in showing restraint in filming dramatic sequences—make for a highly unique experience. It's an apocalypse film, but it's also a highly personal one, letting its scenes of tension and paranoia properly compliment its drama.
Other than its cinematic qualities, the film as a literary piece offers the exact kind of departure needed from other films that attempt to address mental illness in such a profound way. Rather than claw at a kind of absolute, all-encompassing address to delusional psychosis, They Look Like People provides simultaneous breadth and depth to the condition. Wyatt's psychosis is never specifically diagnosed or categorized, and it shouldn't be. It presents a logical what-if scenario of what would happen if a delusional psychotic reacquainted with an unconfident friend, one believing he is chosen to prepare for war, the other simply desperate for success and acceptance.
Perhaps the most impressive quality in Blackshear's debut is that of the two leads, neither are considered more singularly important than another. They share equal importance and illustrate what separates They Look Like People from its influences: the theme of belonging. Both characters ultimately seek to belong, one mentally and the other socially, and they seek solace in each other when their attempts falter. It borders on bromance without devolving into sheer homoeroticism; more importantly, it shows that mental illness is ultimately not a contrived and arbitrary hindrance, but a valid, empathetic character flaw.
They Look Like People is a film of two ambitions: one more grandiose, and one more intimate, but it succeeds in delivering both thrilling apocalyptic horror and a compelling indie drama. Its subtleties are not lost on the audience, and it provides a mature take on the device of mental illness in film.