By Elias Savada.
As its lights dim into darkness and its cacophony of building noises rise up, The Humans poses as a survivor’s journey….Karam offers a absorbing approach to how the dead continue to haunt us.”
In the lead up to this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, many Americans are finally escaping their virtual gatherings and assembled with friends and family. Director Stephen Karam has gathered his own fictional clan in various moments of their disarray as they assemble for a touching, harrowing, shocking, and quite tumultuous day around a not-quite-festive table.
Adapting his Tony-Award winning one-act play, Karam hasn’t really expanded out the single apartment set that encompassed the stage work, but his observational skills as a first-time director showcase how he can point fingers with dramatic, closeup intensity. The dialogue and premise might scream theatre, but the probing cinematography (by Lol Crawley) slowly reveals the family’s pieces with some fascinating photographic moments.
The Humans takes place in a New York City pre-war two-floor, lower floor apartment in Chinatown, blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood, one in some disrepair (cracked, peeling walls that cover up dissonant noises). There is a dimly lit drabness all about the place, as three generations of the Blake family tree, Scranton Irish-Catholics through-and-through, come into focus. The flat’s occupants are Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), a wannabe composer who can’t catch a break, and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), studying for a life in social work. Brigid’s parents are Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, who played the role on Broadway), blue-collar workers who have lead dreary lives as the world passes them by. Her older sister is Aimee (Amy Schumer), is a laid-off corporate attorney. MoMo (June Squibb) is the wheelchair-bound, dementia-laden grandmother who spends most of the film asleep or uttering gibberish.
The narrow hallways imbue an encroaching claustrophobia, even while the apartment has an airy feel to it, no doubt because most of Brigid and Steven’s belongings have yet to arrive from Queens. There are no window coverings, but any voyeurs wouldn’t be able to see in as the panes haven’t been cleaned, well, since the war. Dad’s Sprint cellphone only gets reception if he’s smooshed right up against one of those grimy windows facing the building’s interior courtyard. You don’t want to know about the plumbing.
The introductions aren’t without amusement as the family catches up with their latest health issues, work status, the economics of life, family and friends back in Pennsylvania, and usual chit-chat.
The sound design by Skip Lievsay and music by Nico Muhly give off their own unsettling vibes that blend well with the production design by David Gropman. The camera is a constant motion, as if in a dream state. It may shift focus to a swollen, puss-like water bubble on a wall (no doubt it’s filled with leftover flood water from Hurricane Sandy), while a low-decibel hum arrives on the soundtrack. Even if just for an instant, it adds to the film’s building unease, part of the Karam’s attempts to touch on his script’s horror elements, inspired from the 9-11 catastrophe. Karam offers up a few character-popping-into-view scares to get your heart racing. Even with more than a few flickering lights, a lot of dead bulbs, and some sound bumps, presumably from the woman in the apartment above, the film suggests a sense of agony as the family goes through this thankless gathering.
This character-driven film is crafted to suggest bits of each person’s space in life as the camera roams about the apartment. At one point Aimee’s law career is in limbo, she’s got intestinal problems, and still pines for Carol, her former girlfriend. A brief phone call with her ex suggests any reconciliation is against the advice of the g.f.’s therapist. Later Erik gets into a discussion with Rich comparing their dreams; when the father reveals a nightmare about a faceless woman entrancing him into a tunnel, the camera focuses on a cup with an unnatural confluence of shimmering liquid.
As the main meal starts, the family starts to tear itself apart, ever so slightly. Pick, pick, pick. Maybe you’ve been to one of these slightly dysfunctional family meals, and Karam has a knack for turning the heat up just enough to have one person storm out and another run after to try and put out the domestic fire before it blazes into fury. Most of the dialogue allows for this smoldering household stew to never rise about mild discomfort, yet the screws do get turned real tight. And yet, the filmmaker usually brings the group back together with a good laugh, especially with a good-humored end-of-meal gathering involving a wax pig and a tiny hammer.
As the play-film enters its final act, some startling moral truths flow out that suggest the blue-collar family’s meager financial situation might be more dire in the short term.
As its lights dim into darkness and its cacophony of building noises rise up, The Humans poses as a survivor’s journey. There’s a powerful statement here, especially for New Yorkers that lived through 9-11, that these unsettled souls can’t escape that day’s ghostly legacy. Karam offers a absorbing approach to how the dead continue to haunt us.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).