Camera work redeems the film adaptation’s revisiting of common ground.
Stephen Karam adapted his own Tony Award-winning play, The Humans, with mixed results. The most impressive thing is how it has the characteristics of a film instead of feeling like a stage play with a camera placed in front of it. One of the pitfalls of these types of movies, especially when they deal with very normal subjects like familial relationships, is that they quickly become a self-parodied slog of old tropes and, even worse, try to be topical to the present day. While The Humans does tread into cliched territory several times, it’s the film’s acute understanding of the way the camera adds extra dimensions that turns it into something much better than it ought to be.
The Blake’s are celebrating Thanksgiving dinner together at the New York apartment youngest daughter Bridgette (Beanie Feldstein) shares with recent boyfriend Richard (Steven Yuen). The apartment is old, creaky, and has thin walls and claustrophobic hallways. It’s also dimly lit with exposed wiring and a shoddy paint job. The eyes of Bridget’s suspicious and on edge father Erik (Richard Jenkins) pore over the imperfections. He can’t help but look at every nook and cranny as if expecting collapse at any moment.
This is where the brilliant camerawork by DP Lol Crawley comes in. The way the camera focuses on the apartment’s dingy, sweaty, and rusted interiors as if it were the bathroom from Saw embodies the horror undertones of this family drama. The purgatorial isolation of this apartment, where the only human presence outside of its quarters comes in the vague shapes of entities wandering outside or the creaking of footsteps and thudding of furniture coming from the ceiling, is reminiscent of The Others. Is everyone else a ghost, or is our central family themselves ghosts?
The central family has clearly established issues with each other. They’re brought to life by strong performances–both subtle and unsubtle–from the entire cast. Richard Jenkins steals the show with his soft-spoken voice laced with jabbing dialogue that cuts people deeply and directly. Hints of worry about weight, finance, his ailing mother, and more bubble up, betraying his anxiety. His slow descent into drunkenness is beautifully smooth and unbelligerent.
His wife, Dierdre (Jayne Houdyshell), gives the most resonant performance in the film. Her sense of worry grows from self-image issues and a buried secret she insists on keeping out of the light. Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yuen, and June Squibb round out the small cast. They walk a tight rope to hold audience attention with naturalistic acting and dialogue.
[T]he camera focuses on the apartment’s dingy, sweaty, and rusted interiors as if it were the bathroom from Saw.
But again, verbal revelations are not the most interesting part of this film. All those spoken declarations tend to tread already worn paths. Secrets come out, and the family begins to splinter. We’ve seen this before in films like August, Osage County–also based on an award-winning play–and Trey Edward Schultz’s Krisha–also about a family’s fractured dynamic around a Thanksgiving dinner. The Humans offers a subtler retread of Krisha. It differentiates itself in the dynamic positioning of its characters in the frame.
The Humans speaks about its characters through the places they go for isolation and how they listen and avoid each other in close proximities. The camera presents them as disjointed by the apartment’s geometry – a pair of legs on the stairwell with no torso, arms jutting out of a wall – signifying displacement and discomfort. The apartment is also mostly unfurnished, making it hostile to comfort. Viewers can see its energy seep into each character’s increasingly agitated attitudes. Conversations grow more passive-aggressive over time as the family comes to terms with each others’ company, their myriad of traditions, and, of course, the fact that they’re celebrating it inside what feels like the skeleton of a building not a home.
The final points that The Humans tries to make aren’t illuminating or insightful. Even a big reveal about economic and social differences between generations stays very surface level. These are things we’ve all heard and read about before, maybe even experienced with our own families. This is cinema trying to present itself as real and relatable. The quips of dialogue are so natural, but that naturality never becomes interesting. It is only when things get quiet and the apartment starts its slow creep to swallow everything whole that we sit up and take notice.
The Humans is eating family-style on Showtime now.