The Humans: Cornucopia of Confusion, by David Bax
Stephen Karam is making his debut as a film director with The Humans, which he adapted from his own play. Now, it is possible that, in my movie-centric brain, I am underestimating the atmospheric possibilities of the theater but, even if that is the case, this is a truly astounding transition from one medium to the other. The rhythm and noise of the dialogue inform the mood just as its contents inform the substance. And Karam makes excellent use of out of focus shots; the first glimpse of any of our characters comes from seeing Erik (Richard Jenkins) as a vague figure on the other side of a rain-soaked window; even once we’re inside, that motif of slightly blurry figures persists.
When a family gathers for Thanksgiving, demons are bound to come out. That’s especially true when the setting is a rundown, drippy, newly inhabited and under-furnished apartment. In this old building, voices leak out through vents and pipes. There’s a sense of dread here and Karam doesn’t look away from it, in some moments turning The Humans into a full-on horror movie.
Like so many of the best horror flicks, though, The Humans is often incredibly funny. Not in that middlebrow way of inducing self-satisfied chuckles but rather full of weirdness more likely to elicit belly laughs. That’s probably why the cast, including Amy Schumer and Beanie Feldstein, has so many comedy bona fides. But none of them beats Steven Yeun (a very funny man who’s best known for very not-comedic roles) and his character’s repeated attempts to tell everyone about a silly dream he had at inopportune times.
Laughing around the dinner table at Thanksgiving is not an uncommon sight, if only in our imagination of how things ought to be. But Karam has gathered us on this particular day for reasons other than sharing a joke or two. This family (with the exception of Yeun’s Richard, boyfriend of Feldstein’s Brigid, the youngest daughter) are white people. Erik’s nervousness about Brigid moving to Chinatown and the way the family make reference to the Bhutanese–not with any specific malice but as if the word itself is a joke–make it clear that we’re absolutely meant to be thinking about their privilege as they celebrate a holiday that is a testament to white Americans writing history to make themselves the winners.
Then again, this family has a history of their own and they haven’t always been victorious. They’re not especially well off. Instead, they are struggling inside the limits of their own sphere, just privileged enough that their privilege is not material to them and not enough to do much of anything about it if it were.
The Humans touches on nearly every anxiety coursing through the world today and comes up with a sympathetic, relatable sense of futility. Like in the opening shots of the sky over New York City as seen from the ground in enclosed alleys and courtyards, the exterior of tall buildings becoming the interior walls of roofless cells, these characters are, like the rest of us, within visible distance of freedom but with no clue how to reach it.