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Film Review: A24 & Showtime’s ‘The Humans’ (dir. Stephen Karam)

The Humans offers a fly-on-the-wall experience of this family’s flailing Thanksgiving dinner. This ensemble cast bounces off one another so well. There are two conflicting themes here that create a really unique tonal tension. Lean into its many quirks, and that’s when it works.

Everything about The Humans has had people bursting with excitement (including me). With an absolutely star-studded cast of Richard Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, and June Squibb and a directorial debut from playwright Stephen Karam in a film from A24, it’s going to get some attention, and rightfully so.

The Humans offers a fly-on-the-wall experience of this family’s flailing Thanksgiving dinner. This ensemble cast bounces off one another so well. There are two conflicting themes here that create a really unique tonal tension. Lean into its many quirks, and that’s when it works.

It’s subtly uncomfortable in a nearly indescribable way. You feel secondhand awkwardness and fear through the screen, there are layers to every line. It’s about as well as a Thanksgiving as you’re hosting dinner at your New York apartment while you’re in the middle of moving in could possibly go.

The sound design is really interesting and might have been my favorite part of the entire thing. It feels like you’re really in the room with these people. Voices sound further away when characters are speaking from different rooms or levels of the apartment. They echo, or they are right up next to you, and noises from around the apartment are easily traceable. It feels like you’re really in the room with these people. Loud sounds come in out of nowhere seemingly, and they are very startling; probably some of the most effective jump scares in anything I’ve seen lately.

The music has a chilling tone, and there’s a suspense that breaks every so often that sends chills down your spine. It really contributes to the ominous undertone of the film in a powerful way.

You have the daughter who wants to be a good hostess, her boyfriend trying his hardest to keep his girlfriend’s family happy, the dad with all the answers, the mom who overshares and overanalyzes, the sister whose life is falling apart, and the grandma having some health problems.

It definitely has that play-turned-into-a-movie feel with the confined setting, the limited characters, and the long one-take scenes. I liked how the cinematography framed so many of the shots through the doorways and down the hallways of the apartment. It feels like we’re seeing and hearing things that we’re not supposed to be seeing and hearing. Pair that with the low lighting so representative of these slummy apartments. 

It takes the time to notice the small things in the apartment. The pipes. The crackled wallpaper. The chipped paint. The leaking ceiling. The noisy upstairs neighbor. The cramped spiral staircase. The apartment itself ends up being a character in an odd way. Just like when Any, Bridget, or Moma have something to say, the apartment lets itself be heard.

Conversations meander from one topic to the next — health issues, what’s on TV, religion, WeightWatchers, school, careers, each other’s latest dreams, finances — just like your own Thanksgiving dinners with family.

Moma’s letter had me in tears, and that was a surprising spot of emotion among the otherwise dry delivery of lines in the rest of the film.

You eventually just have to lean into the quirks of this, and that’s when it really starts to work. There’s a lot going for this film even where there’s not a lot going on.

Having said that, though, it is abundantly clear why this is simultaneously debuting on Showtime the same day it opens in select theaters. While the premise is interesting enough, and there’s some vastly underrated talent here, it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing you have to rush and see.

I kept hearing how this has thriller elements and leaned into the horror genre. I guess I see where those claims come from, but the jump scares and ominous noises are by far the weakest (and most random?) parts of the film.

I have to admit that as much as I enjoyed the banter between these characters and the realistic quality of it all, the last ten or fifteen minutes were lost on me. There’s a stark tonal shift that goes unexplained for the most part and caused a real disconnect with the rest of the film before it. 

There isn’t this grand moment at the end where everything comes full circle like we’ve come to expect from films. Instead, there are bite-sized meaningful moments sprinkled throughout.

The Humans premieres on Showtime and in select theaters Wednesday, November 24. 

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