Director: Stephen Karam
Writer: Stephen Karam
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, Jayne Houdyshell, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb
Streaming on: Mubi
There's a lot of talking in The Humans, but not much communicating. Members of the Blake family engage in inane small talk between bursts of nervy chatter. Their sentences drip with underlying passive-aggressiveness. Awkward pauses and too-long silences stretch like a yawning chasm between them. Muted fragments of conversation drift over from one room while the camera is tracking the characters in another. Director Stephen Karam, adapting his Tony Award-winning play of the same name, doesn't attempt to smooth over the discomfort with a score. Instead, he lets the quietness accumulate until the point bursts through with startling clarity — what's important is everything the characters leave unsaid.
The film unfolds over one evening as Erik (Richard Jenkins) and his wife Diedre (Jayne Houdyshell) arrive at the sparsely-furnished New York apartment into which their daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her partner Richard (Steven Yeun) have recently moved. Joining them to celebrate Thanksgiving are Brigid's sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) and Erik's mother, affectionately referred to as Momo (June Squibb). There's a lot of catching up to do and it immediately becomes apparent that not all of it will go over well. Erik, wearing his gloom like a shroud, spends most of the initial stretches of the film staring vacantly at his surroundings. Momo, suffering from dementia, can only mumble incomprehensible phrases repeatedly. Diedre, who laughs uproariously and often inappropriately when in company, retreats into herself when alone. The cracks in communication only deepen as the evening wears on.
Karam rewrites the cinematic dysfunction of a family in the language of a horror movie. At various points, the film suggests a touch of the supernatural lurking about the cold and apartment. Strange noises that erupt from deep within its bowels make for some startling jump scares. Lightbulbs sputter out with alarming frequency. Through Erik's eyes, the camera fixates on the ugliness of the space, from its exposed pipes to the discoloured water seeping in through the ceiling and the claustrophobia induced by its narrow passages. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that it's not the house that's haunted, but its inhabitants. Richard projects a video of a crackling fireplace onto the bare wall with his phone, which does much to improve the atmosphere but, like much else in the film, is ultimately just an illusion of comfort. Losses hang over each character like spectres, simultaneously overwhelming those facing them and appearing inconsequential to those mocking them. In bringing together a flawed family, the film acknowledges that to know someone is to also know exactly how to hurt them.
There are no big blowouts or dramatic proclamations in The Humans, but underneath each sentence, coated in the veneer of social politeness, is a wellspring of secrets and hurt that's hinted at. Brief moments of shared warmth between the family members only deepen the atmosphere of ache because of how fleeting they are. The sharp writing ensures that every well-intentioned remark can just as easily be read as a veiled barb. What the film understands is how distant we can sometimes feel from the people we're the closest to. It gets how participating in the holiday season, a time of festive (and often forced) cheer, can bring into sharp focus the undercurrent of sadness in our daily lives. Sometimes, the most gently delivered news is the kind that cuts the deepest.
The usual touchy topics among families — finances, religion, relationships, careers — here convey broader anxieties about the post 9/11 world, the weight of student-loan debt and the healthcare system, though sometimes with the bluntness of a parent fishing for information on their child's lives. The Humans has none of the staginess you would expect from an adaptation. It creates a world that's simultaneously lived-in and decaying. The biggest tragedy, the film and its title suggest, is that it's a world any of us could inhabit.