A24’s “The Humans” is a fascinating and impossible to pigeonhole drama and the kind of movie that can often slip under the radar. It’s written and directed by Stephen Karan and sports an eye-catching cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yuen, Jayne Houdyshell, and June Squibb.
Based on Karan’s one-act play of the same name, “The Humans” plays out in a single location and has a structure that clearly shows its stage roots. But to Karan’s credit, he uses that one setting to great effect, drawing his audience in and then leaving us with the feeling of being trapped in a place that steadily grows more unpleasant. That feeling partially comes from the stellar production design. But just as much is conveyed through the six beguiling characters we spend the running time with.
The story is set around the ‘complicated’ Blake family as they gather together for Thanksgiving dinner. Brigid (Feldstein) and her boyfriend Rich (Yuen) are hosting her family for Thanksgiving at their new apartment in New York’s Chinatown. The dated fixer-upper with all of its creaks and cracks plays a pretty big part in Karan’s story. I’ve never seen the stage play, but here the apartment has a leering ominous presence that Karan’s camera conveys in a variety of crafty ways.
As Brigid’s family arrives and it doesn’t take long to notice that they aren’t the happiest bunch. We spend a lot of times listening to their individual problems and mining deep rooted issues between them. But this isn’t some dour study on family misery. Instead Karan gives us a family that is still bound together by their love for each other. But love and family can be a messy combination and the movie shows that with an affecting clarity. There are also slivers of dark humor that makes sure things don’t get too gloomy.
The top-to-bottom strong performances give us a good sense of who each of these characters are. Brigid is ambitious, but is stuck bartending to help pay down her student debt. The generally soft-spoken and supportive Rich has a history of mental illness. Brigid’s father Erik (Jenkins) comes across as preoccupied, often blankly staring down into the complex’s cramped interior courtyard. Her mother Deirdre (Houdyshell) feels unappreciated by her family and her job where she has worked for over 40 years. Her sister Amy (Schumer) has several health problems, is struggling with a recent breakup, and just found out she’s no longer in line for a partnership at her firm. Last is Brigid’s grandmother Momo (Squibb) who can barely get around and struggles with dementia.
As their individual stories and the unearthed family drama plays out, Karan uses his camera to create the perspective of a guest. We’re constantly peering over shoulders, observing from other rooms, looking in through windows. His use of still shots through stationary cameras really hones in on his performers letting them do most of the heavy lifting. But Karan breaks up their scenes with shots that accentuate the apartment’s unwelcoming appearance. For a movie with such firm stage roots, Karan’s visuals really impress.
“The Humans” is a talky, performance-driven drama that asks a lot from its audience. It’s not easy to sit for so longing listening to a group of people talk about their jobs, the economy, their frustrations, and their ailments. You have to read between the lines and pay attention. You have to assume to role of the quiet guest, listening and learning who these people are and discovering what makes their lives so complicated. By the end, you’ll find yourself sucked in even as the story takes its more unsettling turn. “The Humans” is out in limited release and on Showtime.