A family celebrates the holidays in The Humans. By the end of the night, secrets will be revealed and the fragile thread keeping them together will snap.
Stephen Karam (director and writer), Lol Crawley (cinematographer), Nick Houy (editor)
Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, June Squibb (cast)
Based on the play The Humans by Stephen Karam
September 12, 2021 (TIFF)
The Humans is a great allegory for the pandemic—it’s set completely within one cramped house, with a family jostling for space, mentally and physically. In that sense, the film works well as a pandemic viewing. But it may not be what you want to watch for escapism.
On Thanksgiving, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), along with their older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer), and Erik’s mother (June Squibb), visit their younger daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her partner Richard’s (Steven Yeun) new home. This is the young couple’s first home, and the only one they can afford, but their parents aren’t quite happy with the direction their life is going.
I was excited to watch The Humans. Following a stellar leading performance in Minari, I was expecting to see more of Steven Yeun in a domestic setting. Feldstein was another huge draw for me. However, the moment the cast list appeared, I realised I’d been misled. Yeun and Feldstein’s Richard and Brigid round out the cast, and they definitely don’t lead it.
The film is set in Brigid and Richard’s new, and rather horrifying, home. The walls are peeling; doors don’t close, and the bathroom is disgusting. Not a single lightbulb survives the runtime of the film. But this is the house Brigid and Richard have decided to make their own.
It’s mostly Brigid’s father, Erik’s, point of view that we get in The Humans. While that is an interesting perspective, it’s not exactly new. I also wasn’t sure why we only saw Erik examining his daughter’s new home with a critical and judgmental eye. What did Brigid’s mother, Deirdre, think of the home? I feel like we don’t hear her voice nearly enough.
The rest of the characters are barely explored. We have to just infer that Brigid and her sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), are close. They only get to share just one scene, which was surprising. During a family get-together, one would expect siblings to find more occasions to complain about the party or, at least, their parents!
There were some familial elements that The Humans did get right, particularly the generation gap. Erik and Deidre criticizing Brigid and Richard for not having “proper” jobs and taking out student loans will feel all too relatable to many North American viewers.
I enjoyed watching Yeun’s Richard trying to keep the peace. The future son-in-law fitting into the family so well was great to see, and it added to the wholesome image of a modern family. The Humans also attempted to eschew any racist digs against Richard, which I shouldn’t even have to be worried about, but I definitely was.
On the other hand, Aimee is the sole queer character, and it was a bit frustrating that she wasn’t played by a queer actor. Plus, she’s depicted as a mess and has to put up with her mother sending her every news item about lesbians dying. What the hell?
A lot of their family dynamics are left unexplained. I would have liked to know why Erik and Deidre were constantly getting after Brigid. Where did all that teasing, which honestly seemed extremely hurtful, come from? Brigid made her own digs at her parents but the hurt they aimed at her felt like it had history behind it. But we never really get any explanation for it, and that was frustrating, considering the film is largely about their family’s interactions.
There’s a revelation near the end of The Humans that I really didn’t enjoy. I think it was too predictable a way of showing family tension. It’s a plot point we’ve seen so many times before in Hollywood. I expected something new and refreshing. And that’s my biggest problem with The Humans—it’s not a unique story. I got Haunting of Bly Manor vibes from this film, except without the ghosts to even spice things up. I could have done with those ghosts, actually.
The cinematography makes the story more interesting. There are long scenes without cuts that put the focus on the actors’ performances. But there are other times when a scene cuts away randomly and returns to the same shot. Was there a reason for this? I wanted to see a pattern, but I couldn’t find it. I also didn’t understand why we heard so much of the dialogue off-screen. It was a bizarre choice and instead of keeping me in the story, I felt like it took me out of the film.
The performances in The Humans are strong, of course. Everyone is really natural and believable. But considering the caliber of the cast, the acting didn’t feel outstanding.
In the end, I really wanted to like The Humans, but the story fell flat to me. The cinematography was all over the place when it didn’t need to be. It was an immersive experience at times, but there were too many gimmicks that took me out of the moment, which is the opposite of what a film is meant to do.