Austin Film Festival Review: The Humans

Claustrophobic Broadway adaptation is horrifyingly astute

Richard Jenkins and Steven Yeun in The Humans (Image Courtesy of A24 Films)

The fact that The Humans originated as a Broadway show could be quickly deduced by anyone unfamiliar with the source material. This family dinner dramedy has the hallmarks of a clear stage-to-screen adaptation: a single location ensemble piece that evokes the feeling its characters are existing in an on-stage set.

Written and directed by Stephen Karam (the playwright behind the original Tony Award-winning one-act play), it documents a single evening spent with the Blake family. They’ve gathered together for Thanksgiving at daughter Brigid’s (Beanie Feldstein) new space with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), a downtown Manhattan pre-war apartment that’s dingy, sparsely furnished, and cramped to both a comedic and overwhelmingly claustrophobic degree. The hallways are such a tight squeeze that dementia-suffering, wheelchair-bound grandmother Momo (June Squibb) can hardly get through the place; god forbid she has to use the single upstairs bathroom only accessible via the narrow spiral staircase in the dining room or hallway elevator.

Also in attendance are father Erik (Richard Jenkins, pitch-perfect in his Exasperated Dad mode), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and sister Aimee (Amy Schumer). As the night moves along, familial pleasantries and small talk become tinged with a gradual sense of hostility and resentment, as the bonds of this family unit are stretched to their breaking point. Overheard gossip, passive-aggressive insults, and exposed secrets are aplenty and conveyed through biting humor in the early stages and striking emotional gut-punches when the going gets tough. The incredible ensemble really sells the material, you can feel the unspoken history between each individual family member in their smallest interactions with each other.

This is only one side to this inventive, strange experimental genre exercise. Alongside all the family crises, The Humans simultaneously functions as something of a haunted house movie. I would be remiss to reveal everything about the tonal tightrope it walks; all that needs saying is that it feels like something sinister exists within the walls of the apartment. It’s an old place and the lack of music paired with impeccable sound design highlights all the creaks in the floors and humming of electricity, but it’s something more than that. The banging from the upstairs neighbors seems louder than it should be, certain objects seem to move or fall for no reason, the apartment gets darker and darker as all the lightbulbs in the apartment inexplicably burn out – something supernatural or just bad wiring?

Cinematography from Lol Crawley accentuates this feeling of the encompassing dread, using every confined nook and cranny to the advantage of the camera. So many scenes are shot peeking around corners or from unusual, sometimes distant vantage points that makes you feel like you’re spying on this family, or perhaps someone (something?) else is. There’s a particularly striking oner in the back half that sees the camera slowly circling behind the family at the dinner table for a near ten-minute take that makes you feel as though whatever presence this might be is closing in all around them.

Karam manages an incredible feat of genre-bending, as neither the comedy nor horror impairs the other. Each is built so naturally within the drama: the laughs are the result of simply having well-realized characters and the scares an existential manifestation of their contentions. The climactic emotional blow-up is one of combined anguish and dread, paired for a uniquely sublime and ambiguous payoff. The razor-sharp balance this maintains is a rare achievement and it’s in service of astute notions – the humor, heartbreak, and sheer terror that comes with unconditionally loving and being loved.


The Humans

Centerpiece Film

Austin Film Festival, Oct. 21-28. Find all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Austin Film Festival, Austin Film Festival 2021, The Humans, Stephen Karam, Jayne Houdyshell, Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein

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