The Humans is available now on Showtime.
The Humans was born by author Stephen Karam in 2015 as a highly acclaimed Off-Broadway play, which was then transferred to Broadway in 2016 and won Tony. Five years later, Karam rethought the same story as a thought-provoking and ingenious acting film, and she brought Tony Award-winning actress Jayne Houdyshell with him to repeat her role as the Blake family matriarch, Deirdre.
The Humans, set on Thanksgiving Day, is now an overtly existential haunted house story set entirely in Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun)’s newly rented but dilapidated duplex apartment in downtown Manhattan. The couple has invited her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre, and grandmother, Momo (June Squibb), from Scranton, PA, along with Aimee (Amy Schumer), Brigid’s sister, who is a lawyer in town. Just a week inside the squeaky, wi-fi-impaired residence, the two floors are sparse and cold, setting the stage for a damn vacation hot nanny!
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To be clear, The Humans is terrifying next to the fact that Kramer most effectively uses the language of the genre, from its asymmetrical, claustrophobic framing to the washed-out color palette and jump-scare-inducing sound design, to tell his story. It is a metaphorical “monster” film that brilliantly deconstructs the unrealistic expectations we as humans bring into the Thanksgiving celebration. It channels our cumulative anxiety for the holidays to communicate with our families, while often hanging down under the heavy weight of achieving top happiness and perfection while being crammed around a table for a few hours. All of it literally exudes out of the apartment with its peeling plaster, leaky pipes, and paper-thin walls, revealing the dysfunction, passive aggression, and secrets that families often drag into the room and eventually can’t ignore.
Led by the masterful Jenkins and Houdyshell, they take their smoldering anxiety with them as they roll the now dementia-stricken Momo into the apartment’s awkward little halls. Erik starts the day distracted, while Deirdre clearly tries to be too comfortable to balance her quirky husband. Brigid is the sunny optimist of the Blake family, while Aimee is the shrewd problem solver who hides his own problems. To round off the collection, Richard is the new (spoonful) boyfriend who is still trying to navigate the slick family dynamics while softly finding a way to reveal a little more of himself to Brigid’s family.
The whole ensemble is amazing. Jenkins is the king of naturalistic achievement, able to add just the right edge to even the most seemingly benign moments. Schumer is perhaps the best she’s ever been in a role, using her comic chops with natural precision, while Aimee uses her wits to disperse her stinging family. Yet she also serves heartbreaking emotions with painful realism as Aimee’s personal problems are slowly revealed. Feldstein is brilliant at going from twittering to restrained in an instant, and Yeun stands in his place as the most emotionally honest and approachable person in the house. The only actor who gets short-lived is Squibb, who due to Momo’s ailments does not get much done outside of a potent scene.
Kramer does a masterful job of finding the most interesting and frightening vantage points within the narrow confines of the apartment. The camera makes the room claustrophobic and voyeuristic at the same time as we lean into a given frame looking for what is just out of the picture. We are so immersed in the lens of film photographer Lol Crawley’s lens that we also feel like we’re at the proverbial table. The intimacy of the space is immersive and eerie and all-encompassing. The film tells us that we must ignore the exterior and believe that everything the house is trying to tell us lives in the people who sit inside it.
With a slow building that rewards us with a cathartic escalation of what lies beneath the exterior of each character, The Humans is a fascinating and often disturbing study of our cumulative flaws. Through the patina of a Thanksgiving day, it is a thoughtful meditation on how we project our disappointments on each other, how relaxed numb we can be, and also how we endure because of these messy ties.
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