‘The Humans’: Joy Is Not on the Menu in Stephen Karam’s Unfiltered Adaption

A young woman’s first time hosting Thanksgiving is quite an emotional roller coaster for nearly all involved in chamber drama “The Humans.” Beanie Feldstein stars as Brigid Blake, a struggling New York City musician who invites her father, Erik (Richard Jenkins), mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and older sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), to spend the holiday in the practically empty Chinatown apartment that she just moved to with her grad student boyfriend, Richard (Steve Yeun). Also there, at least physically, is Erik’s mother (June Squibb), affectionately called Momo, who is suffering from dementia. Throughout the day, everyone does their best to tap into their holiday cheer, but the Blakes’ individual problems are never far away. The style of cinematography employed here gives the film a fly-on-the-wall feel that at times makes the viewer feel like an uninvited guest. 

“The Humans” is the directorial debut from Stephen Karam, who adapted the screenplay from his own Off-Broadway to Broadway Tony-winning play of the same name. Like the play, the entire film takes place over the course of one day in the apartment of Brigid and Richard. Despite numerous comments about how rundown the place is, and it is, it’s a pretty decent size for two people, neither of whom work full time (although Richard has some family money). Each person is coping with some issue that is relatively unique to their age group. Aspiring composer Brigid has a degree in a field that isn’t profitable and gets crap from her dad for it, while Richard is back in school after having taken time off for depression. But out of the three young people, Aimee, who is a lawyer and ostensibly the most successful, has actually been dealt the worst hand, as she’s dealing with a painful break-up with her girlfriend and a digestive ailment that necessitates surgery.

Erik and Deirdre, meanwhile, are both nearing retirement and dissatisfied with where they both are at in the twilight of their careers. Deirdre, an admin for 40 years, feels undervalued. Erik has been a custodian at a Catholic school for decades, and one thing he is grateful for is that his daughters’ received free tuition. Early on, Deirdre hints at a secret Erik is keeping from Brigid and Aimee, imploring him to tell them before dinner. After other hints and build-up, he drops a bombshell that completely changes the young women’s and the audience’s perception of him. Adding to the rising tension are strange noises and flickering lights, mostly things that can be chalked up to living in an old building, but serve to put Erik even more on edge as this fraught secret looms over him.

This intimate family drama allows for the whole ensemble to flex their acting muscles, particularly those pertaining to their vulnerability. Just like she did in the recent FX limited series “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” Feldstein brings a charm and vulnerability here as she deals with being roasted, although on a much smaller scale, as Erik and Deirdre give her grief about her career and marital status. Most millennials, especially artist types, can relate to her as she finds herself defending her life choices to the point of exhaustion. Yeun, meanwhile, is more restrained as the person who is struggling to fit it and stay neutral. But it is Houdyshell, who reprises her role from the original play, who is the MVP here. She brings so much heartbreak and other emotions to the role of this woman who is not only taken for granted by her husband, but also her daughters. She deals with her disappointments by clinging to her Catholic faith and programs like Weight Watchers, and her family mocks her for her chain emails and interests. In one particularly sad moment, she defends an article she sent from a scientific journal that her daughters’ mistook for misinformation and ignored. 

Also looming over the holiday are past traumas, most notably a life altering experience involving both Erik and Aimee that happened on 9/11. The story involves Erik driving into New York City, one of the few days he ever has, to take his older daughter to an interview at the World Trade Center. He ended up losing contact with her for several hours after the attack. In a masterful moment for Jenkins, his character Erik paints a vivid mental picture of that day. This touch helps us better understand why Erik feels haunted and why his PTSD makes him so nervous to drive from his home in Scranton into the city.

In the end, Karam has created a story of family that is full of originality, and at the same time universal. Many of us watching have been in the place of one or more of these characters at one point in our lives, and some of us may still be. Even though we know there is love between the family members, Karam does an admirable job of not trying to tidy up the reality of what it is like to be in a family in which one or more members are dealing with life’s obstacles.

The Humans” releases Nov. 24 on Showtime and in select theaters.