There’s a surprising urgency to Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Tony-winning play The Humans, a vitality one might not expect from a film that sounds like something we’ve seen many times before. Not only is the set-up of a dysfunctional multi-generational family descending on a Manhattan apartment for Thanksgiving as dilapidated as most Manhattan apartments themselves (the post-American Beauty world of indies was forever damaged by the increasingly cliched quirky family subgenre) but the decision to film a one-location, one-act play (especially by the person who originated it on stage) can often be the result of vanity rather than necessity.
But Karam’s intimate, increasingly oppressive drama is a marvel, not just of writing (his play was also shortlisted for a Pulitzer) or of acting (a monumental Jayne Houdyshell reprises her Tony-winning role alongside a flawless non-transferred cast) but of overall conception, a rare stage-to-screen journey that feels worth the mileage. It recalls Florian Zeller’s equally inventive and surprising adaptation of The Father, another apartment-based family drama that instantly avoided the dreaded accusation of staginess by cleverly toying with space and reality. In Karam’s unsparing portrayal of a weathered Chinatown pre-war duplex, every scuff, stain and paint bubble is repeatedly, unsettlingly pored over, turning what could have been a rather staid setting into a place that lives and breathes along with the characters. His camera never settles for the bare point-and-shoot minimum that so many similar films would have been content with and instead, we’re forever exploring the intricacies of a small one-location setting, finding more depth and character within every frame.
It’s the new home of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), a relatively new unmarried couple who have just moved in, furniture still waiting to be delivered. They’re welcoming Brigid’s family for a Thanksgiving meal: her sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), arriving from Philadelphia and her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Houdyshell), along with Erik’s mother, Momo (June Squibb), all driving in from Scranton, Pennsylvania.
There’s the familiar blend of conflicts, resentments and secrets but all have a believably mundane and human quality to them (stoicism over sensationalism) and Karam’s delicate writing tightly grips us even as they unfold quietly. But while his characters might not raise their volume, his sound design picks up the slack, a punishingly loud and intrusive collection of bangs, creaks and thuds that push us to the edge of our seat, where we stay for the majority of the film. It’s already been said countless times about the play but Karam treats his family drama like it’s a horror (he’s previously llamado it “a family play that is sort of infected by my love of the thriller genre”), a quotidian spiral shrouded in an ever-creeping, and ever-unknowable, darkness (lightbulbs go out at an alarming speed and, as in many Manhattan apartments, natural light is almost nowhere to be found). The new home becomes a haunted house of sorts (albeit one that New Yorkers will find strangely charming) and like the very best examples within genre fiction, it brings the fears of the characters simmering to the surface.
There’s disappointment, shame and worst of all, the stomach-pit terror that this just might be it, that the big change you were hoping for (a new girlfriend, a new job, a better body, better health) will probably never come and the overwhelming bareness of this new apartment forces them all to confront this devastating fact, for better or worse. Karam has a precise ear for how people actually interact with one another and every slight encounter and interpersonal dynamic here feels carefully considered, people existing rather than characters performing. There are familiar edges to the parents – the mum who prattles on about neighbourhood gossip, the dad who worries about safety – but we’re so far from easy, rote caricature, Karam’s balance of the general with the specific turning each person into someone we never doubt is anything but real. Despite the film’s foundations on stage, he avoids the expected deluge of monologues, with information and backstory revealed deftly instead. He lets moments sit, with small shreds of dialogue or telling facial reactions, his actors allowed to breathe despite the suffocating atmosphere.
There’s not one false note among his ensemble, who bicker and prod and soothe with such relaxed ease, it’s a surprise they haven’t been doing this same performance together twice daily for the last year. Schumer is a particular surprise in her first convincing dramatic performance, her palpable, aching heartbreak surfacing in a recognisably painful call with an ex before a tearful explosion in front of Jenkins, whom we’ve seen in vaguely similar territory before but never quite as wrenchingly, a father trying to maintain his place at the head of the table as his grip slowly falls away. It’s perhaps no big surprise that the greatest work here is done by Houdyshell, who has been with her character now for so long that it’s almost second nature, but her remarkably lived-in performance is still astonishingly impressive, her face subtly registering the impact of every minor insult or embarrassment. It’s a deceptively small moment but her wavering over which dessert to pick, after digs about her weight, is truly shattering.
There are references to a culture shift, an age gap, a difference in class and religion but Karam never positions his drama as the one We Need Right Now. It’s of a time and a place but comfortably, quietly, confidently so. There’s something both reassuring and terrifying about it all, the family’s resilient warmth and togetherness providing comfort as the existential horror of what it all amounts to chills us simultaneously. The Humans is going to haunt me and it’s going to haunt you too.