Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Stephen Karam
Writer: Stephen Karam
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, and June Squibb
Screened at: Wilshire Screening Room, LA, 11/15/21
Opens: November 24th, 2021
Fear is something that can hold a tremendous power over people, even if it’s not based in reality. Its subjective nature means that some may find a particular topic or idea tremendously frightening and become paralyzed by the thought of it coming to fruition or overtaking them. Certain concepts, like death or violence, are more widely feared, but it’s the unknown that may be able to instill the greatest terror. What lurks in the shadows and what lies ahead in the future can manufacture a horror scarier to some than what they can tangibly see and feel.
Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun) are hosting Thanksgiving for Brigid’s family in their spacious pre-war Manhattan apartment. Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have driven in from Scranton with Erik’s mostly non-communicative mother, Momo (June Squibb), and Aimee (Amy Schumer) is joining them as well. A delayed delivery of all of Brigid and Richard’s furniture from Queens makes their place feel considerably larger and emptier, and as secrets and previously-undiscussed subjects bubble to the surface, the sounds and unpredictability of an old building further heightens the intensity of a holiday family dinner that threatens to explode at any moment.
The Humans comes from first-time film director Stephen Karam, who adapts his own Tony Award-winning play for the screen. The transition from the stage is one that makes extensive use of its sparse sets, creating added drama at numerous moments thanks to the dark spaces around each corner and the ever-loudening noises emitting from the ancient appliances throughout the building. The duplex setup of the apartment enhances the distance between its characters in any given scene, traveling up the thin staircase to escape the impact of a conversation or to get lost in the darkness caused by the haunting and all-too-coincidental blowing out of a lightbulb.
This film is best described as a drama, though it certainly borders on psychological thriller territory as it lingers close to outright horror. What it is that there is for anyone to be afraid of, however, is never so set, though each character offers their own loose theories about what makes them most concerned. The way in which they interact is indicative of a long history of a particular dynamic, one that finds Brigid and Aimee resentful of the way that religion has been pushed on them throughout their lives and Erik increasingly out of touch with his idea of what he wants to accomplish, feeling as if his career and all possibility has somehow left him behind.
The best reason to see The Humans is the strength of its performers, some of whom play against type in more serious rules. Schumer, for instance, is very effective as someone who has the appearance of a successful career and happy life but holds in a deep sadness based on an ended relationship and an uncertain business future. Houdyshell is a worthwhile lone transplant from the stage version, and Jenkins embeds himself deep within Erik’s soul-searching, while Squibb hones on in the impact of her character’s Alzheimer’s disease. Feldstein and an understated Yeun complete the ensemble as the two most self-assured people who only question their stability because others impose their perspectives on how happiness is supposed to look.
The experience of watching this family come together to celebrate a holiday and pick apart their vulnerabilities is an unnerving one, elevating the tension of a mildly uncomfortable and prickly reunion to a dramatic story of existential worry. While the approach is intriguing, it doesn’t always feel emphatic or groundbreaking, and its lack of any concrete resolution or definitive conclusion dampens an engrossing journey. These characters are interesting, but, by its end, this spotlight doesn’t seem entirely necessary.
Story – B-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B