Starring Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer, this unsettling stage-to-screen Thanksgiving flick knows how nightmarish family holiday celebrations can be.
September 28, 2022
Movie buffs who like to theme their viewing around the relevant time of year — holiday-related, primarily — are always spoiled for choice. Christmas films, spooky flicks at Halloween, Easter-relevant fare: you can build a binge session or several out of all of them. The same applies to Thanksgiving, all courtesy of the US, and The Humans is the latest addition to the November-appropriate list. This A24 release ticks a few clearcut boxes, in fact, including bringing a dysfunctional multi-generation family together to celebrate the date, steeping their get-together in the kind of awkwardness that always stalks relatives, and having big revelations spill over the course of the gathering (the calendar-mandated time for such disclosures, pouring out before the tryptophan kicks in). That said, even with such evident servings of underlying formula, The Humans is far creepier and more haunting than your usual movie about America's turkey-eating time of year. A hefty helping of existential horror will do that.
Based on Stephen Karam's Tony-winning 2016 Broadway play — a Pulitzer Prize finalist as well — and adapted and directed for the screen by Karam himself, The Humans is downright unsettling, and for a few reasons. There's the tension zipping back and forth between everyone in attendance, of course — as crucial an ingredient at every Thanksgiving party as food, booze and warm bodies to consume them, at least if films are to be believed. There's also the bleak, claustrophobic, run-down setting, with the movie confined to a New York apartment close to Ground Zero, which aspiring composer Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her student boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Nope) have just moved into at significant expense. And, there's the strange sounds emanating from other units, and perhaps this creaking, groaning, two-storey abode itself, which couldn't feel less welcoming.
As a result, seasonal cheer is few and far between in this corner of Manhattan, where the Blake family congregates dutifully rather than agreeably or even welcomely. Also making an appearance: parents Deirdre (Only Murders in the Building's Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her Tony-winning part) and Erik (Richard Jenkins, DAHMER — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story), Brigid's lawyer older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer, Life & Beth), and their grandmother Momo (June Squibb, Palmer), who has dementia and uses a wheelchair. No one is happy, and everyone seems to have something that needs airing — slowly and reluctantly when it's a matter of importance, but freely and cuttingly when it's a snap judgement directed at others. Watching The Humans, the audience hopes that no one has truly had a Thanksgiving like this, while knowing how well its fraught dynamic hits the mark.
Thanks to Richard, film first-timer Karam has a straightforward way to start doling out backstory — a time-honoured function of fresh attendees to on-screen family dos, and not just in movies about Thanksgiving. Erik chats, filling the newcomer in, although the talk between everyone dishes out plenty of handy details. Religious and political affiliations cause strains, as do booze and money. The clash between the big city, where the Blake family daughters now live, and their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania also informs the discussions. Health woes, relationship struggles, generation clashes, expecting more both from and of each other but getting less: that's the baseline. Brigid stews about not being given enough cash by her parents, and therefore jeopardising her career dreams; Aimee frets about treading water at work, being alone and a medical condition; Deirdre's conservative leanings bristle against her daughters' decisions; and Erik clearly has a secret.
As anxious and agitated as the situation is — and as peppered with passive aggression and outbursts alike — there's always another feeling lurking throughout the barely furnished flat. That physical, visible, inescapable emptiness also speaks volumes about Brigid, Richard and their guests, but it's impossible to shake the sensation that this might've been a joyful affair in any other location. The same troubles and attitudes would exist, and the same players, but there's no avoiding how their grim surroundings are amplifying their bickering. When they're being guarded, coy, reserved or reticent (at times, they all fit) about the things they're keeping from each other, the apartment looms large with space and desolation. When they're flinging truths back and forth, it's tight and distressed. Or, is it actually just a regular old and dilapidated place in a crushing rental market, and it's the evening's occupants and their torment that's bringing the unease?
For a film so firmly grounded in one location, to the point that the cliche about the setting being a character in the movie applies, The Humans can be slippery. Is Karam's setup as simple as a family squabbling? Is there more, or do we just want there to be more because that quarrelling — and the dancing around it, when that's the Blakes' preferred option — is so discomforting? They're the questions that dwell in the unit, which cinematographer Lol Crawley (Vox Lux) shoots like it's both dispiritingly ordinary and unshakeably otherworldly. Frequently, the film looks on from afar within the space as well, framing Brigid and company through doorways that make everything resemble a show. Sometimes, it hones in on physical minutiae as conversations play out. Are all family get-togethers performances? Do we all cling close out of habit and expectation, but keep ourselves distanced by nattering about the trivial and inconsequential? They're queries that hang heavy in the stilted air, too.
As The Humans stretches on, discussions about dreams and nightmares prove revealing. The feature also points out the thin line between both, whether we're slumbering or waking, several times over in its talky frames. No one on-screen really needs reminding; that's where they're caught, even if just emotionally. Across the board, The Humans' performances are similarly anchored and weighty — whatever's going on around the Blakes or isn't, the pervasive dread keeps everyone trapped and festering, and Karam's six key cast members all play their parts accordingly. The effect is compelling, especially when paired with disquieting sound design straight out of a psychological thriller. Let's be honest, isn't that all holiday celebrations with the family anyway?