Erik Blake gathers three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls and eerie things go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.
I wish I had seen Stephen Karam‘s stage version of The Humans. As a theatre major/lover, I could immediately feel the weight of the dialogue; subjects that feel mundane, long pauses fill the air, then the delicious, sharp back and forth. Karam developed his Tony-award-winning script for the screen and every single second of it is authentic. The most magical part of The Humans for a kid that grew up in the Connecticut burbs and then attended a theatre conservatory on the Upper West Side is the specificity to every detail of the sets and sound editing. Now 41, owning a co-op a block away from school, I realize how immune I’ve become to the sounds of a clanking and hissing radiator or the banging footsteps of the neighbors overhead. It is only when I visit home for the holidays that I notice the birds chirping or the silence of a neighborhood with picket fences. And yet, The Humans taps into a universality of the American family. There is something so familiar about the generational divides that appear around a dinner table; the brazen backtalk of the youngest adult, the words of wisdom, often misconstrued, from the parental units. Relationships are rubbed raw by alcohol or exhaustion. It’s a visceral discomfort that is highlighted brilliantly in this film.
Karam’s use of sound, in particular, makes The Humans a genre-bending ride. Don’t be confused when your heart sounds and you think you’ve mistakenly turned on a horror film. The deliberate panic-inducing score and sound editing exacerbate buried secrets in The Humans. Karam’s carefully curated script is a masterclass in storytelling. He clearly understands the natural rhythm of familial banter. Each character experiences an arc over a few hours. The Humans plays in real-time. The blocking is coordinated chaos, and I mean that in the highest regard. The camera sits quietly, like an observer in an adjacent part of the apartment. Speaking of, in seeing photos of the two-story unit set from the Broadway run, I am even more impressed at the similarities in the film. With the cramped spaces down to the water stains on the walls, the production team deserves all the awards.
The cast is superb. Amy Schumer stuns in the role of eldest daughter Aimee. The quiet anguish in her eyes and understanding tones of an adult kid attempting to maintain peace resonates immediately. Her performance has an authenticity that will make you take notice. Steven Yeun is a gentle pleaser as youngest daughter Brigid’s (Beanie Feldstein) boyfriend. He is attentive and honest, with perfectly played outsider energy. It should be no surprise to anyone paying attention to Yeun’s roles since leaving The Walking Dead. His talents are limitless. Dementia takes hold of matriarch Momo, played by the legendary June Squibb. While she technically has little dialogue, each syllable has weight. You’re fully aware of her importance.
Beanie Feldstein as a musician and wide-eyed optimist, Brigid gives us the know-it-all baby of the family, please treat me as an adult vibe we need. You know her character. Feldstein’s delivery is chef’s kiss. Reprising her Tony Award-winning role as Deirdre is Jayne Houdyshell. The underlying pain is precisely masked by good humor and sass. This behavior comes with a breaking point. I could have sworn I was listening to my mother tell stories about her day. Houdyshell doesn’t take any shit. She’s loving but refuses to be a doormat.
Richard Jenkins‘s performance is immaculate. Karam tapped into the plight of the middle-class white man. From working the same job for decades, sending his kids to college, and entering the next phase of life feeling like the rug has been pulled from underneath him. What you aren’t expecting is the PTSD aspect to loom so large. As someone who experienced 9/11 in college and was downtown two days prior, that day hits differently, more so if you lived through it here in Manhattan. That trauma is key to who Erik has become. It is part of his very essence. Jenkins’s physicality is a story unto itself. He is outstanding.
The Humans is the perfect film to watch with your family. Its nuance will bowl you over. The Humans is timeless and completely relatable. It’s a snapshot of what kitchen tables have looked like for years. Do not overlook this one.
RELEASE DATE: In Theaters November 24 and on Showtime
From writer/director Stephen Karam and starring Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, and June Squibb.
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