Existential fear has rarely been so intimate and visceral as in Stephen Karam’s first film, Humans, adapted from his Tony Award-winning play. Very little happens in this real-time portrayal of a family’s Thanksgiving celebration in a run-down apartment in New York’s Chinatown. Food is prepared and eaten, prayers are recited, secrets are revealed and family tensions surface. But for all its obvious lack of narrative drama, the film is a remarkably insightful and powerful portrayal of the human condition. Premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it should be a major contender by awards time.
Karam did very little to open his one-act play featuring six characters (another figure, mute, is seen from afar). In a duplex apartment in the basement, three generations of a family have gathered for a holiday party that requires some improvisation as the apartment is still largely unfurnished. Those gathered are lower-middle-class couple Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, rehearsing her Tony award-winning performance), Irish Catholics from Scranton, Pennsylvania; their daughters Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), an aspiring songwriter, and Aimee (Amy Schumer), a business lawyer; Brigid’s boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), who is studying to be a social worker and is waiting for his trust fund to kick in in a few years; and Grandmother Momo (June Squibb), largely confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia.
The bottom line
A brilliant drama that challenges genres.
From the start, writer-director Karam creates, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, an atmosphere of pervasive terror. The apartment is oppressive, its water-stained walls, peeling paint, narrow hallways, lack of natural light, and dirty windows make up for its physical expansion. A chair immediately shatters on someone sitting in it, a toilet seat is cracked, light bulbs go out with alarming regularity, and the loud, jarring noises coming from the ceiling seem to be almost supernatural in nature. The dilapidated surroundings seem to physically affect the locals, who keep spilling and dropping things in bewildering ways. Brilliantly created by production designer David Gropman, the set is practically a character in itself and will produce shivers of recognition from anyone with limited means looking for an apartment in Manhattan.
Jokes are observed, and everyone seems to take the situation mostly with good humor. Except, that is to say for Erik, who stares into space, silent, as if he felt the imminence approaching. He repeatedly warns Brigid that her apartment is in a flood zone and could easily be submerged if another Hurricane Sandy occurs. He has some personal experience with disasters, having narrowly avoided being killed on 9/11 while accompanying Aimee to an early morning work appointment in lower Manhattan. He would have made a tourist visit to the top of the World Trade Center, except that the observation deck was not yet open for the day.
Erik also tells Richard, whose privileged education he doesn’t so subtly disdain, that he and his wife are struggling to make ends meet. “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” he asks, perfectly summing up the financial desperation in one desperate line.
There are plenty of other problems to get around. Aimee suffers from a bowel disease that could threaten her job, and her girlfriend recently broke up with her. Momo, who needs Deirdre’s help to use the bathroom, is mostly silent and uncommunicative, but sometimes bursts out in absurd words and tends to move away from her wheelchair. When the family sit down for dinner and Erik begins to say a prayer, Momo unexpectedly joins in, eyes shining and speaking the words with perfect clarity. The rest of the family rejoice at her sudden explosion of cognition, but the moment quickly passes and she tragically returns to her locked-in state.
Communication within the group seems to be a problem in general, as they mock each other in the cruel and offhand way so common in family relationships. Erik despises Brigid’s attempts to make a career in music, advising her: “You can still work in retail.” He despises his wife’s unsuccessful attempts to lose weight even more, a subject that clearly causes him great pain. Finally, secrets are revealed that highlight how fragile the family structure can be.
Karam, delivering an exceptionally accomplished effort as a first-time director, expertly raises the tension from the start. The technical aspects of the film contribute greatly to the general malaise, from Lol Crawley’s cinematography, which often features intense close-ups à la Ingmar Bergman (in several places the camera almost seems to point the nose of the actors) to that of Nico Muhly a disturbing musical score (encouraged by equally stimulating compositions by Philip Glass) with a baffling sound design that makes the proceedings feel as much of a horror movie or psychological thriller as a family drama. It could be argued that the filmmaker is erring towards excessive stylization, which sometimes makes the procedure airless and unnatural. But the performances are so authentic, so lived, that one invests fully in the relationships of the characters.
The acting is uniformly superb, with all performers probing subtle depths and displaying compelling family chemistry. Jenkins brings heart-wrenching pathos and strained turmoil to his role as a patriarch who has worked his entire life to find that his efforts have largely been in vain. Feldstein and Yeun convincingly convey the enthusiastic excitement of a couple starting their life together in a new home, even though they are aware that the setting is far from ideal. Schumer displays a tangy, comedic nervousness as a sister facing life’s crises, and Squibb leaves us with a haunting glimpse of the woman Momo once was. But it’s Houdyshell, the only holdover from the original cast, that gives the film its beating, vulnerable heart. One of our most treasured stage actresses, she has too rarely been given the opportunity to truly shine in movies, and she seizes the opportunity and runs away.
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