If you were to tell me one of the most uncomfortable and skin-crawling films from TIFF 2021 would be an adaptation of a stage play about a family drama, I would not believe you. But here we are, with the adaptation of Stephen Karam’s 2015 play The Humans. Directed by Karam himself. This odd film takes the stress and struggle of the family gathering we all know and avoid to a new interpretation that is profoundly chilling and relatable.
The Humans is about a family getting together for Thanksgiving. It is a very simple premise, but one that Karam utilizes to a startling degree. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), have moved into a run-down duplex in New York City’s Chinatown. Mom, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell,) and dad, Erik (Richard Jenkins), along with grandma Memo (June Squibb) are all here from Scranton, and Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), visiting from Philadelphia for the occasion.
Karam brings the apartment to life as an entity in itself, one that the camera loves to explore throughout the film. From the faded walls to the chipped paint and rot that covers the little apartment, this is a character that has seen countless families run through its halls. It knows the suffering they are all facing but stands tall even after countless fights and pain. This is a home we have all seen at some point in our lives, one that a young family could afford, but one that few should have to live in. This is a starting home for a new family, and one many of us have had to endure to live in a big city.
The setting also plays into the horror, with the small apartment seeming labyrinthine in the way it is depicted. I have seen the film twice now, and I could not even imagine drawing out a map of the apartment, or how the rooms are connected. The sense of unease is palpable, and only grows as more of the truths about the family and their trauma are slowly revealed.
“The Humans plays with sounds and settings to give us the true reality of the family we are watching.”
Then there are the noises that drown out all the conversation. The creaks, thuds and haunting whales that seem to come from everywhere, but nowhere specific. As we watch our characters go through the motions, faking the family dynamic they all think is needed, the apartment’s whaling and pain is made clear for us all to hear—a silent scream of everything they are holding in. The Humans plays with sounds and settings to give us the true reality of the family we are watching. They all want to keep the facade of strength, even when they are breaking down behind the mask.
As the film progresses, and the lies and resentments come to the surface, the true horror of The Humans is made clear. This is not a film about any one fear, it is about how family can be a strength but also a crushing reminder of expectations and dreams. While we all want to be the best we can for our loved ones, as we fail ourselves, that truth can often feel devastating, even around the people we love most.
The Humans is a fantastic take on the everyday, brought to life in a way I never thought possible. From the characters to camera work, this is a film that rises above a simple concept to deliver something extraordinary. Even the minimal setting is used to full effect, delivering a hauntingly real slice of the mundane that we all want to avoid.
Stephen Karam makes every day experiences feel horrific, much like films like Hereditary make family pain and suffering into something demonic. The Humans plays on the fear we all hold, even with the people we love. It is a brilliant take on a simple dynamic, told perfectly with an amazing cast and subdued setting all bringing the stage play to life on the big screen.