There were bigger films at TIFF this year, buzzier films, films with hype and hope and high expectations. The Humans, though? That one was for me. An intense, talky film, character-driven, with an interesting cast: sign me up and sit me down! Stephen Karam adapts his one-act play (finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony winner for Best Play) for the big screen, a risky DIY move that pays off in surprising ways.
The Humans takes place in Brigid and Richard’s new apartment, “new” being a misleading word in this case as it’s a crumbling pre-war duplex in downtown Manhattan, but it’s new to Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), who are moving in together for the first time, and playing host to her family for Thanksgiving. Just one problem: the furniture hasn’t even arrived yet. Haha, just kidding. In-laws for Thanksgiving? There’s gonna be drama, folks.
But not the loud, yelly kind. Sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) arrives first, from Philadelphia, mourning her recent breakup and dealing with an intestinal rebellion. Mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and dad Erik (Richard Jenkins) arrive next, in from Scranton, toting grandma ‘Momo’ (June Squibb), physically confined to a wheelchair and mentally confined by Alzheimer’s. With an apartment full of people instead of furniture, the holiday celebrations begin, but I’m afraid you won’t find them very jolly.
The passive-aggression starts almost immediately. There’s no one quite like family for such precision the button-pushing, and nary a scene goes by without adding to the tensions of the night. Everyone’s got a secret, and as if the house knows, it starts to bump and burble around them. As darkness falls, the apartment closes in, feeling all the more claustrophobic as director Karam finds nooks and crannies to hide his camera and catch his subject in awkward positions. Aimee hides a trembling lip, and makes unadvised calls from the bathroom. Dad Erik eyes the apartment’s many flaws, distress flashing across his features, tongue firmly bitten. He sees every loose doorknob, every bubble in the paint, every single water damage stain dotting the ceilings. Is he evaluating the apartment’s worthiness, or lamenting that he can’t provide better for his daughter? With a panic attack always encroaching, he’s a tough character to crack, but Richard Jenkins is second to none, and he’s rarely, if ever, been better than this.
Intimate and meticulously observed, Karam has an ear for dialogue and a knack for finding the authenticity in human interaction. Completely free of artifice, this feels like an absurdly typical American family fumbling their way through another holiday dinner. They love each other and they drive each crazy.
Houdyshell, having originated the role of Deirdre on Broadway, plays her like a second skin, so comfortable in the role she wins our empathy with the very smallest of hints, her anguish just barely visible yet undeniable, her every flinch present and accounted for. Feldstein and Yeun are each as good as we’d expect them to be, flawless parts of a flawless whole. Schumer’s the real surprise, holding her own alongside them, Aimee’s role within the family instantly identifiable and relatable.
The Humans gets to the truth in this family dynamic, eschewing melodrama for raw honesty, leaving the members of this family open and exposed. They are laid so bare it feels almost embarrassing to be eavesdropping, yet it’s so compelling it hurts to look away. Karam is confident enough in his material not to muck it up with cinematic tricks. He relies on strong writing and excellent acting, and both here are beyond reproach. He holds a mirror up to us, and like all humans before and after us, we are fascinated by our reflections. Our very natures, the best and worst of us, revealed in one turkey dinner around a rickety folding table with mismatched chairs, Momo snoring softly from the corner. A compelling story is more than enough.
I loved every bit of this movie, how it moved me, how I felt I knew and understood these characters instinctively, winced when they winced, held my breath when they held theirs. The Humans is among the best of the many excellently curated titles at TIFF this year, and how I wished I was watching it with others, able to debate the merits of its title, the meaning of those blackened lightbulbs, Karam’s creepy, haunted atmosphere, treating this family drama as if it were a horror – and whether, just maybe, it is.
The film will simultaneously be released in theaters and aired on Showtime on November 24, 2021.