‘The Humans’ Captures the Tensions and Vulnerabilities of Family in the Post-9/11 U.S.


Jokes about the trials of family dinners are in no short supply on social media during Thanksgiving week in the states. For those in the U.S. who gather for the holiday, family time can often be a tense negotiation between generations, political positions, and varying socio-cultural experiences. The Humans, the directorial debut of Stephen Karam based on his own Tony-award-winning play, focuses on an example of this phenomenon in action. It captures one night for the Blake family: father Erik (Richard Jenkins) who attempts to maintain his pride and position as trusted patriarch; his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) who is struggling through a particularly emotional period of her life; Erik’s mother Momo (June Squibb) who lives with advanced dementia; Erik and Deirdre’s oldest daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) who’s coping with job loss, a disability, and a recent breakup; second daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) who’s hosting the dinner in her brand-new bare-bones apartment; and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) who does his best to navigate a family he wants to be a natural part of.

Although the film is called “The Humans,” it may have been better titled “The Apartment.” The film opens with engaging shots looking up at the sky within enclosed apartment courtyards before transitioning into interior shots of Brigid and Richard’s living space. If anything, the apartment is the true protagonist of the film. It seems to have an agency of its own that interrupts and complicates the family’s attempts at connection. Just when someone begins to open up, a loud thump from the upstairs neighbours shakes the ceiling. At other times, doors slam and light bulbs bust. While The Humans is not a horror film, it does conjure the mundane dread of architecture that doesn’t prove as hospitable as we might wish. The apartment itself feels like a creature, resistant and undomesticated. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that post-9/11 New York is a space of vulnerability, and one with which survivors of the attacks continue to negotiate.

The Humans doesn’t attempt to shirk its status as a play adaptation, and it puts this choice to good use. Instead of focusing on the actors and their faces, the camera lingers on walls, fixtures, doors, and caulking. As we would be in a theatre play, we are set apart from the actors, usually watching them interact with one another as a group. When the camera does move to focus on one character, we often see them only partially, such as the back of their head or an extreme close-up. Medium shots of the characters in emotional states are sparse, and when cinematographer Lol Crawley employs them, he does it to full effect. Despite this distance from the actors, each one still offers up a sturdy performance. Audiences may be surprised in particular by Schumer’s grounded dramatic work in this. Feldstein continues to prove herself a compelling actress with a long career ahead of her, and Yeun’s performance here is worthy of his status as one of last year’s Oscar nominees. Jenkins and Houdyshell pull the family together, giving haunted performances that balance pride and pain.

The Humans is a film that explores class, disability, and even race. Although no character points out the fact Richard is Asian, he still seems forced to impress and serve the white family. He is the one who does the most labour in preparing the food and serving it. He’s also quick to apologise, mediate, and accommodate the family. He is the outsider and observer of a privileged white family who are desperately trying to maintain a sense of respect even as their interactions slowly but surely lay bare their socially-perceived shortcomings. Without explicitly addressing it, the film presents a portrait of white fragility in the U.S. and how a holiday like Thanksgiving can throw this into relief (but, to pun, provide no real relief).

Despite being at points bleak and critical in its depiction of its characters, the film never feels misanthropic. Although the characters can be unpleasant and petty, the camera’s capturing of their vulnerability invites the audience to view them with empathy. In the end, they’re shown wanting to love one another, and everything that jams these attempts hurts them with a pain recognizable to anyone who’s found themselves in difficult familial relationships. These are characters who have made mistakes and continue to make them right in front of us, but the film does not frame them as mistakes.

The Humans isn’t a film for anyone looking for a fast-paced, witty-one-liner film. Although plenty of movies offers up wise-cracking domestic dramedies, few families are really that clever, and Karam knows that. The film starts out quite simple, but it accumulates tension and drama throughout its runtime until its final act feels not unlike a heavy Thanksgiving meal. It does, however, seem like something is missing; the camera’s distance is a little too far from us to fully land the emotion we might crave. The film also could test the patience of a viewer with its near two hours of dialogue and gaps of silence, but for fans of character pieces, there’s a lot of keen filmmaking and skillful acting to be thankful for here.

The Humans is out in the US now

by Bishop V. Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.