There is a ghostly quality to Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Adapted from his own one-act play, Karam plunges us into a story of mysterious power and disguises it as a seemingly normal family drama. Just in time for the holidays, you will see yourself in this family as they battle their own demons, test the strength of their ties with one another, and experience the untapped paranoia of losing everything. This is easily one of the best acted dramas of the year.
Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell play Erik and Deirdre, a married couple who venture into lower Manhattan to visit their daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) in her new apartment that she is sharing with her husband, Richard (Steven Yeun). Boxes are still strewn about and paper plates will be used for dinner. Despite Brigid’s clear optimism in her new space, her father is skeptical. “You’re living in a flood zone,” Erik repeatedly tells her. Amy Schumer plays Aimee, Brigid’s sister who is struggling with both a new breakup and severe stomach ailment. June Squibb is Momo, Erik’s mother who is bound to a wheelchair and struggling with dementia.
The scene is simple, but it is relatable. When you go back for the holidays, you exchange pleasantries and you help your parents catch up with recent events in your life. Deirdre emails her daughters, links to news articles she thinks they should read, and Richard bonds with Brigid’s family as much as he can. Erik is perpetually worried about strange noises he hears in the apartments surrounding the one he is visiting.
Karam only gives his cast one set to play around in, but it gives the actors so much to play with. The hallways are too narrow and the walls are cracking. Erik jokes with his Brigid throughout his stay, but this apartment is the exact place your parents worry about when you tell them you are whisking yourself away to follow your dreams in the big city. The apartment is a crumbling reminder to everyone that things change and people die or they are forgotten. The opening montage is literally the sky from the perspective of the courtyards of the high-rises around the city. The space is established so well, and it feels claustrophobic just watching them navigate around the dark corners as they eavesdrop on one another.
Pain is worn on Houdyshell’s face even if Deirdre tries her best to hide it (she won a Tony Award for originating the role on Broadway), and she butts heads the most with Feldstein’s Brigid. In either an attempt to make herself feel better or out of spite, Feldstein brings an unintentional cruelty to the relationship with her mother. She will make small comments about her parents’ marriage or her mother’s comfort snacking, and they always hit their mark hard whether Brigid knows it or not. Seeing this performance next to Feldstein’s vulnerable Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story is fascinating. Not many performers get to play such polar opposites within months of each other.
Jenkins’ performance is an internal one, but your eyes always dart to him. His strength as a performer is how much of an Everyman he is, and that lands very well as Erik. The film begins and ends with him, and he will remind you of something you know even if you aren’t aware of it. He delivers a fearful, powerful extended sequence at the end of the film that most actors wouldn’t be able to pull off with as much emotional heft. Schumer is quietly effective in a small, dramatic turn. Since she is a comedian, she can make Aimee’s dry humor and self-deprecation pop, but the heartbreak she feels is very genuinely rendered.
While The Humans may appear to be spartan in terms of plot, its deeper emotions are tapped from what is left unsaid, silently insinuating what these characters are afraid to express. The Blake family fears quite a lot, and it is palpable. Fear of failure, poverty, loss of love, and, ultimately, death hang over all of these characters, and Karam’s writing is rich and poetic in its simplicity. His adaptation is a devout one, but it feels incredibly alive. This is an astonishingly confident directorial debut. In a year full of strong first films, Karam’s work ranks among the best. The Humans is not a horror film, but with the right cues, Karam’s film would find in its place among other contemplative, spooky tales. We are all afraid of something very true and very real, and Karam wants you to confront it.
The Humans will haunt you. There are many play adaptations that force you to look inward, but Karam’s film turns on the light and lets you truly see the cracks.
The Humans will release theatrically and on Showtime on November 24.