Not many movies will likely make you begin to study the ceilings and walls of your home after viewing it, but The Humans, Stephen Karam’s intensely claustrophobic film adaptation of his Tony-winning play, does just that. For every minute of this taut but slow-roiling family drama, the movie sets itself in a dilapidated apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown, with an extra emphasis on being really in it. The camera, its range of movement limited within these cramped confines, magnifies stray details of David Gropman’s production design: the stains on the ceiling, the grime on the windows, the brownish drip from leaky pipes, the lumpy textures of paint and plaster. It’s as up-close a vision of architectural decay as likely ever captured in a movie. It’s also a clear metaphor for what nearly every character here experiences: the steady wasting away of body and spirit. The character who perhaps feels that wasting away most acutely is Erik Blake (a stoically moving Richard Jenkins), the middle-aged patriarch who has gathered here with his family for Thanksgiving dinner. Ordinarily he and his wife of many years, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), might be welcoming everyone to their Pennsylvania home, but this year they’re being hosted by their younger daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), at the apartment she’s just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun). Also joining the festivities are Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), and their paternal grandmother, Momo (June Squibb).
That sums up the movie’s very fine ensemble, though as you’re watching, it takes a while to sort out who’s who. Karam, working in a relentlessly naturalistic vein, doesn’t line up his characters neatly in a row. Instead he drops us in, following the characters around a space that’s as unfamiliar to them as it is to us. He mines a small comedy of errors from the way Erik and Deirdre navigate Momo’s wheelchair around a narrow hallway, and he follows Aimee repeatedly up and down a spiral staircase that leads to quite a grotty bathroom. The Blakes are clearly used to taking things in stride, absorbing setbacks and indignities with the practiced resilience and salty humor endemic to their Irish-Catholic heritage. Which is not to say that they’re above a little complaining — and who can blame them? The furniture hasn’t arrived. The light bulbs keep burning out. Loud, jarring noises interrupt the holiday chatter, some of them issuing from an upstairs apartment, some from an especially noisy trash compactor. (Skip Lievsay’s remarkable sound design is some of the year’s best.) Blurry, inscrutable shapes hover in the apartment complex’s “interior courtyard” through the tiny, grimy windows, catching Erik’s attention as he stands in the only corner of the apartment with a cell signal. Is The Humans a haunted-house movie? Maybe; Karam is not above unleashing a jump scare or two. But for all the creeping dread he summons here through sheer formal concentration, the nature of the horror he’s addressing turns out to be much harder to pin down.
The holiday-set dysfunctional-family drama has a long legacy that’s both celebrated and overstuffed, and the strength of The Humans lies in the way it scrambles the formula, leaning away from the raised voices and jaw-dropping revelations that are among the genre’s more rote tendencies. The Blakes aren’t especially dysfunctional; their affection for each other is palpable. But that only makes their collective melancholy all the more heartbreaking in its often intensely personal and private manifestations. Erik’s fidgety, distracted state does hint at one or two painfully guarded secrets, which he tries to cover up with warm assertions of religious faith and spirited jokes. Deirdre, steadfast in her devotion to her husband and children, is the family’s much-battered emotional glue, and the sublime Houdyshell — who won a Tony for her performance and is the lone member of the play’s original cast to make the transition to the screen — is seldom more moving than when she’s expressing gratitude for a sliver of kindness or absorbing the blow of someone’s thoughtless, stinging remark.
Both Erik and Deirdre, who have worked the same office jobs for decades, are hitting a wall with hard economic times and diminished opportunities. But The Humans is neither an overtly political piece nor a story of working-class pain. There are stray references to specific events: Brigid and Richard’s Chinatown apartment is located in a flood zone not far from Ground Zero, which more than once raises the grim specter of 9/11. But Erik and Deirdre are most haunted by something common to parents of any generation or background, namely the fear that their children will grow up to be no more fortunate or fulfilled than they are. Aimee, whom Schumer inhabits with wounding resignation and not a hint of her usual comic energy, has ulcerative colitis, a condition that has taken a blow to her legal career; she’s also mourning the end of a long-term relationship. Her sister, Brigid, played by a quick-witted Feldstein, may be healthier and happier in love, but her discontent — financial woes, struggling artistic aspirations — remains an unignorable thorn in her side.
For very different reasons, the grandmother and the boyfriend find themselves somewhat on the outside looking in, though both still make their presence acutely felt and their company deeply appreciated. Yeun’s Richard responds to nearly everyone with sensitivity and kindness, as well as a level of emotional vulnerability that quietly challenges Erik’s traditional masculine stoicism. (He’s also the one who unwittingly, chillingly clarifies the meaning of the film’s title.) And Squibb’s Momo, who has Alzheimer’s, gives poignant expression to the best and worst of her experience, showing us how moments of lucidity fight for dominance amid a blur of incomprehension and pain. Momo offers each of her family members a glimpse of the fate, more existential than medical, that may well lie ahead for all of them: a state of utter aloneness, a condition that stems not from a lack of love but from the realization that love may not be enough. Erik has seen it, too; it invades his darkest dreams, some of which he shares with his family. And it manifests itself in the walls of darkness, penetrated only by the light of a lamp or an open door, that sometimes flood the screen and threaten to swallow him whole.
The deep, terrifying pathos that supposedly emerged from The Humans onstage, undoubtedly finds a different approach here; this isn’t a stagey play adaptation, as Karam has concisely rethought the material for the screen. Some of the movie’s most cinematic qualities come straight from the stage production; including its unnerving cacophony of offscreen interruptions. But Karam takes a whole new approach when it comes to the film’s geographical layout: while the play unfolded on a single split-level set, Karam and sensational cinematographer Lol Crawley use other kinds of fragmentation of the screen to their advantage; shooting the actors from an ominous distance, using walls and doorways to segment the frame; Nick Houy’s sharp editing further boxing the characters into their separate spaces. And as the movie progresses, its sense of rhythm only begins to flow better. Each shot seems to lengthen along with the shadows. The camera feels more and more liberated, achieving a hard-won sense of connection as it glides around a dinner table where a family’s sadness can still give way to hope and laughter. Karam is too honest to offer an easy-going conclusion to his characters or his audience. But when he plunges us into darkness here, as decisively as he did onstage, he does so with all the more bracing certainty that the lights may very well come up. A beautiful melding of resilient togetherness and existential terror, The Humans encapsulates the intense compromises and intimate devastation of family; a movie about mundane despair and the weight of what’s left unsaid.
The Humans is playing in Select Theaters and streaming on Showtime