The Humans – Film Review
by Frank L.
Director – Stephen Karam
Writer – Stephen Karam(based on the play by)
Stars – Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer
The Humans won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2016. It was written by Stephen Karam, and he now directs its metamorphoses into a film. It is set in a Manhattan apartment (in Chinatown) in a building that is wedged in. Its tightness with its neighbours is highlighted by the opening shots which are taken from the ground and stretch to a small patch of sky above. These opening shots underline how little natural light makes its way into an apartment in Manhattan and also how little is seen of a family behind its closed doors.
Richard (Steven Yeun) and Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) have just taken possession of the apartment. They are a new couple who have invited her family from Scranton to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner. The group consists of Erik (Richard Jenkins) her father, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) her mother, Aimee (Amy Schumer) her sister and Erik’s mother Momo (June Squibb). While the apartment is on two floors, it is shabbily down at heel; the paintwork is blistered and the utility pipes are showing their age while the bathroom is tired. All of this is made obvious as Richard and Brigid have almost no furniture other than a table and six chairs at which the feast will be eaten. In addition, Momo is mostly silent and expressionless, as the years have taken their toll on her brain.
The conversation is inconsequential initially but gradually the stresses and strains of daily life appear. Edginess arrives when suggestions are made which do not take account of the financial tightness in which the Scranton family exist. However, they are staunch in their Roman Catholic faith and the entire family hold hands to say grace at the beginning of the meal. Gradually, the challenges facing each family member emerge.
The acting is hugely impressive. Houdyshell in particular shows a maternal pluck that is undiminished even if both at work and at home she has had to bear disappointment. She is not slow to criticise if she thinks someone has said something dumb. It is a great role and Houdyshell nails it. Erik is a lesser figure but Jenkins gives credibility to a father figure and head of the family who is barely adequate. Aimee is in a fragile state as she has recently broken up with her girlfriend. Schumer encapsulates well her attempt to put on a brave face until she can no longer do so. Feldstein and Yeun are fine as the somewhat newly partnered couple acting as hosts to her family.
The cinematography of the shabby flat is shown in exacting detail. It’s unsettling as one expects something to give up or burst. These senses are heightened by the excellent score which complements the dysfunctionality of this family dinner while the camera work never lets you forget the tired state of the apartment.
This is an intense peep into the life of a family. It is all about adults. There is no sign of children. There are few signs of success but few of failure. With this lack of excitement, this film might be expected to be dull but it is not. Somehow Karam draws you into the tensions of this family and it is gripping. Let the film permeate; it is a slow burn.