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‘The Humans’ Review: A24 Has Stephen Karam’s Back, as the Playwright Adapts His Incisive Micro-Drama to the Big Screen

This exceptionally well-cast (and -acted) indie proves refreshingly quiet and observant compared to your typical dysfunctional-family Thanksgiving drama.

The Humans
Wilson Webb/A24

Playwright Stephen Karam hasn’t just made a movie out of his Tony-winning play “The Humans”; he’s made an A24 movie, with all the idiosyncrasies and directorial self-indulgences that implies.

Over the course of just eight years, A24 has established itself as a distributor for which out-there creative gambits aren’t merely permitted, but outright encouraged. The result has been a situation in which audiences perceive the company — which has produced such films as “Lady Bird,” “The Lighthouse” and “Uncut Gems” — as a reliable curator of movies that challenge mainstream, mass-market expectations. It’s reached the point where moviegoers who’ve never heard of the individual auteurs responsible (many of whom are on their first or second features) trust the company supporting them, congregating to discuss A24 films on Facebook, and turning up just to see whatever unusual project the outfit might release next.

So what does an A24 version of “The Humans” look like? Karam’s script was already somewhat experimental by the standards of a typical Broadway play: While the drama centers on a middle-class, 21st-century Scranton family’s housewarming-slash-Thanksgiving dinner at youngest daughter Brigid’s newly rented New York City apartment, the staging did interesting things with lighting, music and sound.

Onstage, the set represented a cross-section of a spacious yet scuzzy two-story Chinatown apartment — barely furnished with folding tables and chairs, since Brigid (played here by Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Middle Eastern in the play, now repped by Steven Yeun) had just moved in — while strange noises emanated from the building and neighboring apartments: the demonic rumbling of the trash compactor, the bowling-ball thud of something heavy being dropped upstairs. New York audiences laughed at the way each crash made fuddy-duddy Blake family patriarch Erik (Richard Jenkins) jump, sensing that not only was he uncomfortable with the big city, but he also had something on his mind.

I recall seeing the show at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and realizing that, despite all the attention paid to reproducing those effects, “The Humans” seemed to be missing the unique sound of New York — that cocktail of police sirens, taxi horns and people hollering in the streets. And then I thought, surely a Broadway audience would have heard all that clamor live, pouring in through the walls of the Helen Hayes Theatre. (But if that’s the case, maybe it wasn’t a conscious strategy, as Karam doesn’t layer in such exterior commotion here. The sound design is precise, but doesn’t include the greater city beyond.)

And here’s where the A24-ification of things comes in: Whereas theater audiences could see all parts of the apartment at practically all times, Karam carefully controls our gaze in the film version. Collaborating with DP Lol Crawley (“Vox Lux”), he tends to focus on small nooks, subdividing the space and directing our attention much as a graphic novelist does. The precise, draftsman-like windows of a Chris Ware comic come to mind, challenging us to make sense of each frame, mixing up the angles and asking us to notice details that might otherwise disappear in the background — like the way a water leak makes paint blister or the maze of pipes that run along the ceiling.

When looking out at a sunset, some people appreciate the sky, while others find themselves distracted by the billboards and power lines in the foreground. Metaphorically speaking (since these windows open onto nothing more than a claustrophobic interior courtyard), Karam wants us to pick up both, alternating seamlessly between intensely private moments — as when clearly lonely big sister Amy (Amy Schumer) finds a quiet corner to call her ex-girlfriend — and beautiful, bigger-picture moments of connection.

Karam has invested each of the characters with dimension and complexity — even grandma Momo (June Squibb), her mind cannibalized by dementia, reduced to mumbling nonsense from her wheelchair. We feel for her too, as “The Humans” finds a moving vehicle for her voice to be heard. Some critics have described the Blakes as a dysfunctional family, but I don’t see it that way. In the role of Erik, Jenkins gives a subtle, understated performance. When he looks inward, we’re invited to do the same. And as his wife, Deirdre, Jayne Houdyshell (the only actor from the original Broadway cast) is just terrific, exuding care and concern for everyone, but also a kind of cautious self-protection vis-à-vis her weight, her kids’ teasing and Erik’s secret.

I’ve never shared this with my readers, but it feels relevant to the way “The Humans” captures the micro and macro aspects of post-9/11 New York: I moved to the Big Apple 20 years ago, and spent my first year sharing a West Village apartment not unlike the one seen here with an 83-year-old woman named Betty Davis. (I later learned that Betty, a retired drama teacher who graciously invited me to plays when I could barely afford it, was the estranged grandmother of actor Sam Rockwell, but I digress.) I remember my family coming to visit me a few months before 9/11, which gave me an excuse to go to the top of the World Trade Center. And I remember what it meant to live in lower Manhattan after the attacks, when you had to cross a police barricade at 14th Street to reach your apartment, and the smell of the aftermath — of concrete and carnage, of 110 stories and countless lives vaporized into a poisonous mist that lingered in the air and polluted one’s nostrils for months afterward.

I sense all of that in “The Humans,” which is perhaps my favorite work of art to result from 9/11 — except perhaps architect Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus structure, which simultaneously evokes a dinosaur carcass and a wing taking flight. In its own oblique but circumspect way, “The Humans” acknowledges how the WTC attacks transformed the city, how conservative, small-town parents already nervous about letting their kids leave the nest for New York were given reason to fear the worst, and how a generation of strong-willed survivors refused to let their dreams be derailed on account of it.

“The Humans” is about a hundred or more recognizable aspects of being alive in America at this moment. It’s about how different generations interact with each other. It’s about tolerance, which flows both ways: parents who love their kids unconditionally, even when they show up with same-sex or nonwhite partners, and kids who find it in themselves to respect their folks’ old-fashioned Christian values. Above all, it’s about acceptance and reconciliation, whether that comes from a religious place or not.

There are those who will watch “The Humans” and find it totally banal. Others won’t see themselves in it at all and instead of relating, might reject it as just another “boring white person” movie. Thanksgiving-set family dramedies are so often rowdy, whereas not much happens by traditional cinematic standards here — a creative choice A24 clearly protected. Plays can get away without a lot of plot, since theater is so often about spending time with interesting characters and the pleasure (or discomfort) of being in their company. I’ll admit that Karam’s camera strays down one too many empty hallways for my taste, but I love the patience with which he lets things unfold, the respect he shows this family, and the way these characters don’t feel like characters at all, but real people — fellow humans.

‘The Humans’ Review: A24 Has Stephen Karam’s Back, as the Playwright Adapts His Incisive Micro-Drama to the Big Screen

Reviewed at Wilshire Screening Room, Sept. 7, 2021. (In Toronto Film Festival – Special Presentations.) Running time: 106 MIN.

  • Production: An A24 release and production. Producers: Louise Lovegrove, Stephen Karam.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Stephen Karam, based on his play. Camera: Lol Crawley. Editor: Nick Houy. Music: Nico Muhly.
  • With: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, June Squibb.
  • Music By: