“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?,” asks Erik (Richard Jenkins), as he sits down to a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner. At the table are his two adult daughters Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Aimee (Amy Schumer), his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), Brigid’s live-in boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), and Erik’s elderly mother suffering with Alzheimer’s whom they affectionately call Momo (June Squibb). It’s one of the more chilling lines from ‘The Humans,’ director Stephen Karam‘s screen adaptation of his Tony Award wining stage play, and it sets the tone for what is about to unfold.
Three generations have gathered for a holiday meal at Brigid and Richard’s crumbling Chinatown apartment, and the group seems happy to be spending time together. What starts out with hugs and spirited familial teasing fades to mildly polite civility, eventually disintegrating into serious bickering and the revelation of deeply buried despair, fears, and secrets. In other words, everyone behaves in a friendly manner, until they don’t.
This is an intimate portrait of a family that on the surface has a very simple story. There are the standard working class money problems, relationship problems, and health problems. They have disagreements about careers and life choices and religion, things that all lead to a disconnect between those who love each other the most. It’s the subtext here that’s so complex, especially as each individual person navigates the unspoken tension and validates their place in the familial social structure.
The film gives an honest and authentic portrait of a crumbling family, one with so much pain bubbling below the surface. It’s very talky and conversational, which can make it feel like nothing really happens in the story. It’s staged like a play and is not particularly cinematic unless you are emotionally involved.
This is a film that demands a lot from its audience, asking them to pay close attention to even the smallest details. Karam’s camera hovers like an objective observer, sometimes feeling unpleasantly intrusive while forcing outsiders to watch even the most uncomfortable confrontations as tensions rise and tempers flare.
It’s weighty material that is deeply affecting, especially the richly textured performance from Jenkins. The film is perfectly cast, but his role as a disappointed (and disappointing) father who is haunted by his past transgressions and regrets is as authentic as it is unsettling. The psychology is spot-on, mirrored by the strange noises and darkest corners of Brigid and Richard’s empty, decaying apartment.
Karam incorporates a few horror elements to drive home the sense of all-encompassing dread. This is not a horror movie in the traditional sense, but it does go to some very dark emotional places by exploring the fear of being consumed by anxiety, betrayal, loneliness and death. To that extent, “The Humans” has an existential element that is quietly disconcerting. It’s an extremely sophisticated and complex drama.