The Humans Review: Stephen Karam's Adaptation Is Deeply Layered & Unsettling

When most think of holiday movies, Christmas and Halloween might come to mind first. There are plenty of them and, at least for the Christmas-themed films, they start relatively early and get a lot of attention throughout the season. Thanksgiving is sandwiched between the two and it remains the one major U.S. holiday that gets the least focus onscreen (in movies and on TV). The Humans, however, delivers a magnetic, unsettling Thanksgiving drama with a particular focus on family dynamics, fraught with plenty of conflict. Written and directed by Stephen Karam, and adapted from his Broadway play, The Humans explores layered and realistic family relationships in a deeply nuanced way that is elevated by strong direction and thoughtful performances.

The Humans follows the Blake family. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), the youngest of two daughters, has just moved into a new apartment in New York City with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). Her father, Erik (Richard Jenkins), mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer) are visiting to see the new place and to spend Thanksgiving together, taking care of Erik’s mother Momo (June Squibb) throughout the night. As they make small talk and bond over the course of the film, old, heavy wounds are revisited, and secrets are revealed.

Related: Stephen Karam Interview: The Humans

The Humans explores the family dynamic in all of its raw, unfiltered messiness. Through heated, muted, stilted exchanges, and tender moments, the film sits comfortably in the awkward pauses, the words that go unspoken, and the general dread that so often accompanies family get-togethers. Karam encapsulates the experience of being in one — in the film’s case, teeny tiny — space with loved ones, how daunting it is to sit in the same room and be asked the same questions or rehash familiar, and hurtful, drama. To that end, Karam employs the claustrophobic space of the apartment incredibly well. The tight rooms, the clanking pipes, and the dark closets add to the overall unease of the family’s dynamic, which swings between being tension-filled and strange to abruptly funny and cruel.

Karam sneaks in horror elements that substantially elevate the intensity and the disconcerting feelings that linger like a shadow looming at the edges of the scene. It’s rather incredible how Karam builds towards an ending that sees the family’s quibbles, resentment, love, and discomfort culminate in the wake of a secret that is bubbling beneath the surface throughout, just waiting to explode. The Humans’ finale isn’t contrived at all, but something that develops over the course of the film; a big reveal is expected considering the characters’ interactions. The way it’s handled — with careful, realistic, and emotional nuance — provides understanding to all that comes before, with Karam leaning into the devastation, distance, and regret that nearly swallows everyone whole.

The Humans is a balancing act. It’s difficult to portray messy family dynamics in such a multifaceted, realistic way, but Karam masterfully navigates these loving, misguided, disheartened, struggling characters and their complicated history with each other in a way that genuinely speaks to the audience. Film adaptations of plays often run the risk of having too much or too little, but The Humans embraces its source material as Karam uses close-up shots, mirrors, and blurry windows to add to the story through film.

The cast delivers tremendous performances, from Richard Jenkins imbuing his character with paranoia, detachment, and sadness to Beanie Feldstein's portrayal of Brigid as the endearing, yet deeply weary and annoyed daughter who is commitment to producing a good meal regardless. Everyone is at the top of their game, their communication seamless and layered with history. Steven Yeun has the least to do as Richard, but his attempts to ensure the tension never gets to be too much by breaking the ice with well-timed (and somewhat awkward) jokes is wonderful. Thanks to the writing, directing, and cast, The Humans makes for a disconcerting, haunting, and moving watch. It’s a Thanksgiving family drama that amplifies its characters’ relationships within an eerie, charged space to great effect.

Next: Richard Jenkins Interview: The Humans

The Humans released in theaters November 24, 2021. The film is 108 minutes long and is rated R for some sexual material and language.

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