Ritual dictates that families come together on sacredly observed occasions—holidays, birthdays, funerals, other markers of time like new homes or babies. They serve the more obvious function for gathering, but they also distract us from the ground crumbling beneath our feet; we demand that the ritual of things that stay the same as a means to not be suffocated by unavoidable, irrevocable change. Such is the dark stuff of being alive at the core of Stephen Karam’s The Humans, the Tony Award winning and Pultizer shortlisted play that he now adapts for the screen. It’s a taxing and unsettling debut film about how the things that keep us together are insufficient shelter from the things that pull us apart.
The Humans follows the Blake family and their displaced Thanksgiving celebration. Typically held in the family home of parents Erik and Deirdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) in Scranton, the Blakes instead are spending the family meal at the new apartment their composer daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) shares with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). Brigid’s ailing sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) and dementia-saddled grandmother Momo (June Squibb) are also along for the day as the mostly unfurnished home proves both inconvenient and a vessel for the Blakes’ unspoken and long-ruminated burdens alike. The setting may be spartan, but the baggage is bountiful: pocks in the wall stew like the festering of family history, the lights abruptly go out like their abandoned traditions, the lack of creature comforts reflecting the outside world’s increasing financial inviability.
More humane than morose, Karam crafts The Humans with a deceptive remove, viewing the proceedings sometimes from rooms away from the action, peering around thresholds as resentments and secrets come to roost. With this tense eye, Karam makes several kinds of deaths loom: loss of a matriarch, abandoned traditions and religious practice, financial ruin. What makes this perched perspective favor compassion despite his flirtation with horror movie tactics is how the human stakes remain at the forefront. The visual language is spooky and uniquely intimate, but it’s also that the Blakes’ pain is so vibrant that we might not want to get too close to it lest we recognize our own. Are we the ghosts haunting the evening or are the Blakes?
The film is not just a harmonious pairing of craftsmanship and theme but also boasts an impressive ensemble all working in tandem to Karam’s heightened naturalism. Houdyshell reprises her Tony-awarded performance and flawlessly transitions that work to the screen. She modestly fleshes out a mother angry and perplexed with her children’s indifference to the structures by which she’s led her life, with the marvel of the performance lying in how she reveals Deirdre beginning to understand how those things have failed her. Schumer is the film’s quiet revelation, having the most precise grasp of the cast on Karam’s tragicomic rhythm. Jenkins is perfectly cast, carrying a psychological weight that matches Houdyshell’s and, crucially, is revealing for the moments intentionally out of sync with her. But the film is most impressive as a collective effort of the entire ensemble, one that makes us feels voyeuristic to their collapse while never losing the humanity of Karam’s socioeconomic concerns.
Once the heaviest secret that hangs over the evening is unearthed—an avoided central rot with consequences whose roots reach all of the film’s meditations on religion, economics, and family stability—it comes in a torrent, rushed out before an anxious horror takes over. It’s too late for the truth to save them, and Karam leaves just a glimmer of hope that they might yet save themselves. In the vacuum that Karam creates of focused feeling and wide-reaching reflections, The Humans feels somewhat singular, a chamber piece but not a slight one easily dismissed.