Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 31st, 2021
The Humans (Stephen Karam, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Based on his own eponymous play, Stephen Karam’s The Humans places us center stage at a dreary Thanksgiving dinner in lower Manhattan, where the Blake family gathers to help youngest daughter (of two) Brigid move into her new apartment with boyfriend Rich. Father Erik is less than excited by the change, preferring the Queens neighborhood where she lived before. For one, the place is a bit of dump, despite being a duplex, and he doesn’t trust the neighborhood (near Chinatown). It’s not just crime he’s worried about, but the proximity to the destroyed World Trade Center buildings. He was there on 9/11, and lost track of older daughter Aimee that day. He’s never quite processed that trauma, but everyone has their own additional pain that comes out over the course of the drama. It’s a very bittersweet holiday, and Karam’s movie (I never saw the stage production) provides a raw and intimate look at ordinary human suffering up close. It may not be cheery, but it is affecting.
The ensemble is first-rate, with Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water) as the paterfamilias, Beanie Feldstein (How to Build a Girl) as Brigid, Steven Yeun (Minari) as Rich, Amy Schumer (I Feel Pretty) as Aimee, Jayne Houdyshell (the one cast member who was in the original Broadway show) as mother Deirdre, and June Squibb (Blow the Man Down) as grandma Momo. From loving to annoyed to downright angry, they make the characters’ rapport wholly believable; we are immersed in a dinner not unlike what many of us probably confront each year, for better or worse. The sometimes quickly alternating emotional vibes of the scenes draw us in, even as they push individuals away from the family circle. Though the circumstances are unique to each of them, their experiences feel universal.
Beyond the performances, it’s the set that shines. Production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) has built a structure that is both drab and majestic, hints of what the space might look like with some care occasionally bursting through the grunge. The camera moves effortlessly through the tight spaces and between floors, also moving out into the larger apartment complex, as needed. When the electricity starts to fail and the living quarters are plunged into increasing darkness, the architecture of the location still provides a basic grounding for our understanding of who moves where and why. It’s an impressive bit of staging for the screen.
The narrative, itself, is more subtle in its revelations, taking time to deliver its eventually powerful beats. With disarmingly slight feints, thrusts, and parries, Karam unveils details of each person’s state, startling us with the results. We think we’re talking about Brigid and Rich’s marriage or career prospects, but then find ourselves, instead, enmeshed in Aimee’s own relationship woes. Just as we begin to understand the dynamic within Erik and Deirdre’s own marriage, it shifts. Even Momo proves capable of surprise. Nothing is certain, and anything is possible. All of that plus significant moments of genuine comedy.
As powerful as the writing may be, at the end the movie takes the easy way out for its resolution, deciding to leave all threads open. There is integrity to this approach, for sure, since humanity is complex and simple solutions elusive, but as a work of fiction it comes across as less than fully formed, Tony Awards for the source material notwithstanding. Or at least it makes us question how much anyone has learned or changed. It’s still strong stuff. If you like your anguish to pierce you with unhealable wounds, The Humans will no doubt gratify.