The Humans Image

The Humans

By Alan Ng | November 26, 2021

NEWPORT BEACH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Want a great family film about family to see just before the holidays? Consider Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Karam’s directorial debut will make you wish we could extend the pandemic through the holidays.

The Humans is the story of the Blake Family. Daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) is hosting her family for Thanksgiving in her downtown Manhattan home, which she shares with her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun). Arriving at her cramped pre-war duplex are her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), and grandmother Momo (June Squibb), who is well into a bout with dementia.

Like any family gathering, pleasantries slowly fade away as family s**t starts to stir. Aimee is fighting to keep her emotions together after a very recent breakup with her longtime girlfriend. Brigid and Richard are struggling to keep their apartment while she is in school pursuing music. Lastly, Erik and Deirdre find themselves on the brink of insanity caring for Momo as they can not afford in-home care. As the evening progresses, each person’s frustrations are eventually projected as anger toward one another.

“Like any family gathering, pleasantries slowly fade away as family s**t starts to stir.”

The interesting thing about The Humans is how it’s shot. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Karam’s play that attempts to capture the feeling and spirit of a stage play. Rather than placing everyone in a room and shooting around the characters, Karam uses the duplex to frame his shots. In theater, we sit in our seats and watch the action from a distance. Karam captures this feeling by placing the camera far in the corner of each room or in a different room and pointing it through a doorframe. The camera rarely moves. The distance mimics the emotional gulf between the family members. The interior is also dark and cold, reflecting the family dynamic.

There’s also a horror/thriller vibe permeating The Humans, though it is not a genre picture. Intense conversations are often interrupted with jumpscares triggered by neighbors banging on the walls and ceilings. Lights then inexplicably shut off because of a broken breaker or busted lightbulb. All choreographed perfectly with the dialogue.

The narrative of this family unpeels its layers like an onion. The story is less of a plot and more of an observation of a family put in a fishbowl. We watch the slow deterioration of the evening while juxtaposed with the even slower decay of the old duplex. Unlike your typical film adaptation of stage plays, the actors shine in their ability to make every single line sound authentic and grounded. As a result, the dialogue sounds and feels natural, like those tense family dinners we’ve all experienced.

As unique as this style is, it does feel labored at times. I impatiently thought, “where is this going?” at several moments. If you like stories to move from point A to B to C, then you’re going to be disappointed. Honestly, while I’m glad I saw The Humans, I’m just not sure I’d go back for more. It plays out like cinema verité, as the plot comes through the performances of this fantastic cast and the orchestration of emotions set against the percussive noise of a New York apartment.

The Humans screened at the 2021 San Diego International Film Festival and the 2021 Newport Beach Film Festival.

The Humans (2021)

Directed and Written: Stephen Karam

Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins, June Squibb, Jayne Houdyshell, etc.

Movie score: 7/10

The Humans Image

"…will make you wish we could extend the pandemic through the holidays."

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