Set across one strained Thanksgiving dinner and releasing at Thanksgiving in the US and on Christmas Eve here in the UK, The Humans is maybe not quite the first film you’d turn to for festive family entertainment, but for those who want a bit more fire in their Christmas viewing, it’s an affecting, funny, and brilliantly eerie study of a family in crisis. It’s always a risk to have a playwright bring their own stage work to the screen, especially when it’s their film directorial debut, but Stephen Karam manages the transition with a deft skill that keeps the intimate theatrical trappings but still feels genuinely cinematic.
Taking place over just one night, The Humans invites us to Thanksgiving dinner with the Blake family. Younger daughter Bridget (Beanie Feldstein) has just moved to Manhattan with her boyfriend Rich (Steven Yeun) and is keen to prove her ‘grown-up’ credentials, so plays host despite the fact that the move is far from complete, so her two-storey apartment is sparse and uninviting. This discomforting space feels fitting though as Bridget’s pushily religious parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, the only actor brought over from the original stage production) arrive, dementia-stricken grandma Momo (June Squibb) in tow, and immediately start their casually cruel sniping.
Completing the unhappy six-some is older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer in a rare dramatic role), who is dealing with an imminent job loss, a difficult break up, and some bad medical news that she can’t help but take out on her family. On paper, it all sounds miserable, and it often is, sometimes devastatingly so, but there’s plenty of warmth and laughs here too. Familial inside jokes balance being funny for the audience with feeling genuinely lived-in, the full extent of the gag accessible only to the people sharing it, and a brief lucid moment for Momo brings the entire family joy in an incredibly touching way.
Of course, with a premise as spare as this – one rather bare location and six actors – the performances have to be top-notch, and they are. Houdyshell is quietly heartbreaking, while Feldstein and Schumer really impress, bringing new shades of darkness and sadness that neither has really had to conjure before. As the patriarch with a depressing secret, Jenkins often steals the limelight, though Yeun is on more subdued form, playing the outsider just trying to get through the dinner as diplomatically as possible.
With dialogue and acting as fine-tuned as this, Karam could have easily rested on his laurels, but there’s a lot of formal ambition at play here too, especially as things take a creepier turn. As more secrets and resentments start to fly, lights start going on the fritz, whilst the creaks and groans of the old apartment building seem to grow louder and louder. The Humans becomes a ghost story without the ghosts, this family haunted, in essence, by one another, a haunting made much more tangible by the superb production, the rancid dank of the cheap apartment looking more and more tumorous as the story progresses.
Karam finds consistently interesting and innovative ways to frame his cast in this restrictive space, tightening the frame further and further until the characters take up only a sliver of the screen, amping up the claustrophobia and only occasionally giving room to relax. It’s a style that perfectly fits the setting – you can practically feel yourself breathing the apartment’s stale air by the film’s end. Cramped and relentless, The Humans is not exactly a gentle watch, but it can be an exhilarating one.