Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, June Squibb, Beanie Feldstein, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun
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… a drama that has the power to live on in the mind of the audience as they ponder their own relationships to those they love, and more importantly, to their own selves.
Writer/director Stephen Karam adapts his 2016 Tony Award winning one-act play The Humans into an intimate, at times universal, cinematic drama about the comfort and discomfort found in family gatherings.
Set in a dilapidated Manhattan pre-war duplex, the film weaves in themes of loss, religion, uncertainty about the future, familial divergence, and secrets kept that assuage conflict and personal reckonings. Although these themes are relatively common, what sets Karam’s film apart is how he allows the drama to unfold and the unsettling setting in which it does.
Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her live-in boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun) have invited the Blake family to Thanksgiving in their barely furnished Chinatown apartment. Travelling from Scranton, Pennsylvania for the festivities are patriarch Erik (Richard Jenkins), matriarch Deirdre (Jane Houdyshell, reprising her role from the Broadway production), and Erik’s mother Momo (June Squibb) who is in the grips of advanced Alzheimer’s. Joining the family is Aimee (Amy Schumer), the eldest daughter of Erik and Deirdre, who now lives in Philadelphia.
The Blake family appears to be functionally broken in many aspects, yet they also display love and loyalty to each other. Brigid, a graduate composer, is eking out a living bartending. Aimee has recently broken up with her long-term girlfriend and is about to be fired from her job as a lawyer due to time she has had to take off due to a chronic health condition. Deidre works as an office manager, but after over thirty-years in the company is being overtaken by younger and more educated co-workers. Erik’s job is janitorial at a prestigious religious school in Scranton – one he continued with so his daughters could get a subsidised private education. Richard is an eternal graduate student studying to be a social worker.
Karam’s dialogue teases out the frustration that the Boomer generation feels for their more educated offspring. Erik casually castigates Brigid for not going to a State college and instead opting for a more expensive course. The generational gap in the family is made more palpable as both daughters have rejected the religion that Erik and Deirdre tried to instil in them. Deirdre is extremely active in her church and community and although she doesn’t outright say it, she disapproves of both her daughters’ personal lives. She sends Aimee stories about lesbians committing suicide and not so subtly pressures Brigid to marry.
As the Blake family tussle with each other in small and sometimes cruel ways, the apartment acts as a (un)sympathetic background to the emotional state of those within it. The apartment is an uncanny space where ruin seeps through the walls. Explicable and inexplicable noises act as jump scares that increase in frequency as the family begins to peel back their own facades.
Production designer David Gropman has created a space that begets psychological horror. The apartment itself seems illogical in its floor plan. Many aspects of it are abject and provoke disgust, especially from Erik. Moreover, the wiring is faulty and as the evening progresses lightbulbs routinely go out, leaving the family in what seems a haunted space. In effect, the apartment acts almost as a character of its own, metaphorically hostile, yet for Brigid and Richard, a place they accept as their home.
Adapted plays that exist in a single location can often lack cinematic flair. In the case of The Humans, the frankly brilliant work by cinematographer Lol Crawley proves the opposite. The camera is often positioned to give an off-kilter flavour to the proceedings by setting shots through multiple rooms and doorways. Where it is necessary, the camera also captures micro-expressions on the characters’ faces. The push and pull of the cinematography adds immeasurably to the tension in the film.
The performances by the ensemble are in short, excellent. The naturalism of their work gives authenticity to the story. Amy Schumer as Aimee does career-best dramatic work. Richard Jenkins, the most seasoned dramatic actor in the cast, is utterly believable as the increasingly fragmented Erik – a man who is used to being the moral backbone of a community and family who has failed to fulfill his own expectations of self.
If there is a standout performance in the film, it belongs to Jayne Houdyshell who embodies her character’s complex fragility. Deirdre is perhaps the most derided character in the film but is given the least opportunity to verbally express the hurt she feels. Shamed for her overweight body and her busybody nature, Deirdre enacts gestures to convey her emotional state. Houdyshell gives a master class in acting from top to toe.
The Humans is very much a human story that is resonant because it is so real. The Blakes are unique but also representative of shifts in contemporary culture. One of the plot points revolves around Erik narrowly escaping death on 9/11 and for a while losing Aimee in the tumult after the Twin Towers came down. Erik’s nightmares are infused by trauma. Although Karam is not deliberately trying to capture an essential American zeitgeist with his story of one family, it can be argued that he certainly taps into it. What we fear most in the world isn’t necessarily outside us, it exists within us. When our external methods of validation fail, what do we hold on to? Karam’s drama is thought provoking and quite chilling, and as we move to the final act it is difficult not to feel a sense of profound unease. The Humans is a drama that has the power to live on in the mind of the audience as they ponder their own relationships to those they love, and more importantly, to their own selves.