“The Humans” is a chilly chamber drama about one increasingly stark situation among several miserable family members who happen to gather together for their little Thanksgiving dinner. This is certainly not something you cannot casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but the movie did a fairly good job of presenting its story and characters with enough mood and insight, and it steadily holds our attention even as it gets more bitter and depressing later in the story.
The story is mainly unfolded inside one modest apartment located somewhere in the Chinatown area of New York City. Although it looks rather barren and stuffy on the whole, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steve Yeun) hope that this apartment will be a nice new place for both of them, and we see her several family members looking here and there inside the apartment for a while. Although her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) do not like this place much, they do not say that to their daughter, and neither does Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer).
Anyway, Brigid’s parents and older sister come to the apartment for having the Thanksgiving dinner with her and Richard, and they also bring Brigid’s grandmother Momo (June Squibb). Having recently become quite fragile in addition to suffering Alzheimer’s disease which deteriorates her speaking ability a lot, Momo is mostly bound to her wheelchair, and there is not much interaction between her and others because she often seems to be lost in her fading mind.
As Brigid and her family spend some time together before having the Thanksgiving dinner, we also come to observe the considerable emotional gaps among Brigid and her family. Her parents, who are still living in their hometown in Pennsylvania, are devoted Catholics, and they unintentionally annoy their daughters as asking and talking a bit too much about how their daughters have been in their respective personal lives. While Brigid is a struggling musician without much prospect at present, Aimee recently happened to lose her job due to a certain chronic illness, so they do not want to talk about their current statuses, but, to their annoyance, the conversation among them and their parents often sways to that inconvenient subject.
Brigid and Richard try their best for giving the fairly nice Thanksgiving dinner to their guests, but the mood is still not lightened up much despite their sincere efforts. Furthermore. there are also a series of small but disturbing incidents due to the shabby aspects of their apartment, and the mood accordingly becomes chillier and spookier with more darkness here and there in the apartment.
And it gradually turns out that there are a few secrets to be revealed sooner or later. While Aimee frequently checks her smartphone alone for some unknown reason, Erik and his wife seem to be having some problem between them even while they behave as if nothing serious had happened at all, and we later get a sudden moment of emotional outburst from Deirdre.
These secrets will not surprise us much when they are eventually fully revealed during the second half of the film, but we come to pay more attention to how much the characters are isolated from each other. They all cannot help but become strained and uncomfortable whenever they have a conversation among them, and they simply prefer to walk away and then be alone for a while. If you have ever been quite unhappy to be among your family members during those holiday season meeting, you will surely understand well their misery and unhappiness.
Although everything in the story remains calm and static to the end, the movie thoughtfully observes and depicts its characters nonetheless, and director/writer/co-producer Stephen Karam, who adapted his Tony-winning play of the same name for himself, ably conveys to us the stark sense of isolation and disconnection surrounding the characters in the film. While usually watching them from the distance, the camera of cinematographer Lol Crawley makes some effortless movements around the characters, and I particularly admire how the camera smoothly revolves around them during one impressive extended shot as subtly accumulating more tension under the surface.
The six performers assembled here together for the movie are all wonderful in their respective roles. Richard Jenkins, who has always been one of the most dependable character actors working in Hollywood for more than 25 years, has a masterful moment as the camera slowly zooms on his face during one certain scene, and Jayne Houdyshell, who incidentally reprises her Tony-winning role here in the film, holds her own place well besides Jenkins. While Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer are surprisingly effective as being quite different from their several recent comic performances, Steven Yeun fills his seemingly thankless role with enough life and personality, and so does June Squibb, who admirably keeps going with her acting career even at present despite being 92 in this year.
In conclusion, “The Humans” is an admirable piece of work which is not exactly entertaining but still worthwhile to recommend mainly for the good ensemble performance from its small but solid cast. I felt impatient from time to time during my viewing, but I appreciate its subtle handling of mood and nuances at least, and I am certainly willing to revisit it for appreciating that more.