THE STORY – Set inside a pre-war duplex in downtown Manhattan, The Humans follows the course of an evening in which the Blake family gathers to celebrate Thanksgiving. As darkness falls outside the crumbling building, mysterious things start to go bump in the night and family tensions reach a boiling point.
THE CAST – Beanie Feldstein, Jayne Houdyshell, Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, June Squibb & Steven Yeun
THE TEAM – Stephen Karam (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Adapting a play from the stage to the screen is hard. Doing so for a play that takes place on one set is even more challenging. And yet, here we are, one year after Florian Zeller blew the roof off of his own adaptation of his play “The Father,” and Stephen Karam has done much the same with his own adaptation of his play “The Humans.” On the stage, “The Humans” was a kitchen-sink drama: Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) is having her family over for Thanksgiving dinner in the Chinatown duplex apartment she just moved into with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). Except that all their stuff is still stuck in Queens, their upstairs neighbor keeps doing something that makes loud banging noises, and the lightbulbs keep blowing. Grandma (June Squibb) is wheelchair-bound and afflicted with Alzheimer’s, sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) is still reeling from a breakup with her girlfriend, and Mom (Jayne Houdyshell) and Dad (Richard Jenkins) have some news to share with everyone. On the screen, without changing the story at all, Karam has turned the play into a psychological horror film, using clever blocking, stellar sound work, and highly unconventional cinematography to create an unforgettably claustrophobic cinematic experience.
Anyone who has lived in a Manhattan apartment on too-little salary will instantly recognize the tight hallways, visible network of pipes, and bulging walls of Brigid and Richard’s apartment. What they might not realize is the cacophony of sounds that fill the place: The stomping on the floor upstairs, the rumbling from the laundry room, the hum of the electricity. Combined with the unnaturally tight framing from DP Lol Crawley, the setting resembles nothing so much as a pressure cooker, an apt metaphor for most family holiday get-togethers. Karam’s screenplay is adroitly attuned to the rhythms of such events, finding the exact right spots when everyone goes silent, when someone makes a callback to an earlier conversation, or when someone has gotten just drunk enough or just stressed enough with hosting duties that they slip and say something they shouldn’t. None of the dialogue sounds scripted, a testament to Karam’s writing as much as the actors, who create a wholly believable family dynamic.
And what actors Karam has assembled! Houdyshell is the only cast member returning from Broadway, and she is magnificent in reprising her Tony-winning performance. She is every mother who connects with her children by sending them “interesting” articles forwarded to her by friends and sharing gossip about everyone from the hometown, lovable and annoying in equal measure. But Houdyshell’s hangdog face and slumped shoulders tell another story, too. One of a woman struggling to keep it all together as she cares for her husband’s memory-addled mother in a world that feels like it’s moving further away from her every day. One perfectly-judged push-in as her character finally silently breaks and puts herself back together is a master class in screen acting. Schumer has never been this good, eventually finding the sweet spot between artifice and naturalism as Aimee does her best to put on a brave face as she faces a family gathering as a singleton for the first time in years. Feldstein and Yeun make the most of their counterintuitive pairing, building a shorthand instantly recognizable as that of a couple very much in love but still learning how to live together. But it’s Richard Jenkins who’s the stand-out, carefully sowing the seeds of the film’s final revelations throughout his bundle-of-nerves performance. The amount of different shades of worry he can convey is astounding, culminating in a colossal gambit of a final scene that needs exactly this performance to land the gut-punch it’s hoping for.
The problem with that ending, though, is that it leaves everything unresolved. A bombshell revelation is dropped, everyone reacts, and before the conversation finishes, everyone goes in their separate directions. While it works on a thematic level, on a plot level, it feels like there’s a whole act missing. Combined with a visual style that often obscures the actors’ faces, whether through low lighting or shooting them from behind, it will feel unsatisfying for many. But this is where Karam pulls his greatest trick, seamlessly shifting into a sequence of near-surreal intensity inside the mind of one character that is wholly grounded in the world of the film. All of the film’s unconventional methods pile onto each other – the overbearing sound mix, the voyeuristic shots of characters through multiple doorways and around corners, the lighting that gets lower and lower with each passing scene – to create a sequence as full of heart-stopping terror as any horror film. This is brilliant filmmaking, deliberately opaque in a way that most family dramas never dare to be. If it is unsatisfying, then at least it is purposefully and effectively unsatisfying. Even the best-laid plans can go awry, and even the most steadfast people can make disappointing mistakes. But if you’re lucky, the love of family can overcome and light your way back. “The Humans” is a powerful testament to familial love in all its forms, even its most unpleasant ones, and much like a good family gathering, it will make you laugh, make you cry, cause you to reflect, and possibly make you angry. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is far braver and more effective than most films even try to be, and for something that looks on its face to be a conventional family drama, that is cause for celebration. Let us give thanks.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Playwright Stephen Karam seamlessly transfers his play from stage to screen, making it cinematic in surprising, unconventional ways. The sharply-observed screenplay is brought to life by a pitch-perfect ensemble.
THE BAD – The unconventional shooting style and the unresolved ending will frustrate many.
THE OSCARS – None