Credit: A24
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

The Humans | Stephen Karam

December 3, 2021

The Humans isn’t a subtle film, but mostly impresses thanks to surprising formal chops from playwright-turned-director Stephen Karam.

In a millennium relatively lacking in original movie ideas, and one in which stage work has seen a return to the fore of the zeitgeist, it makes plenty of sense that such material is being mined with greater frequency for film adaptations, even those works lacking in cultural cache or a previously requisite baseline of visibility. That abundance means more is being written on these efforts, and it’s become quite passé to decry theater adaptations for what they lack in essential cinematic character, lazy critical assessment lambasting their overly stage-y formal and production aesthetics or their penchant for affected dialogue (if not outright soliloquizing) without employing much intellectual rigor. Indeed, writ large, much of the critical engagement with adaptations of stage plays is predicated on the false premise that there is something innately uncinematic about one-location films with a roster of thespians trading barbed witticisms and exorcising emotional demons in real-time (only one template, to be sure, but likely the most recognizable), and that’s not to mention the many that expand upon this conventional standard. To suggest that such efforts somehow betray the film medium is to deny the art of the moving image its complexity, to ignore its multitudes and prostrate one’s critical faculties only to a limited conception, and to short circuit more meaningful engagement. Increasingly, it’s an issue of conditioning to contemporary cinematic discourse — monkey see, monkey do criticism.

The latest work to brave the stage-to-screen waters, The Humans is of immediate interest due to its unusual circumstance of boasting original playwright Stephen Karam as the soul authorial and translative voice here, taking on both directing and adaptation duties of his 2016 Tony-winning play (and with only two screenplay credits under his belt). If critical appraisals are too unthinking when it comes to such translations, they’re not always untrue, and so The Humans presents an interesting case study in giving full creative control to a theater-born artist with no previous directorial experience, pitting intimacy with material against fluency in form. As we well know, there is no new thing under the sun, and The Humans’ broad sketches are as Broadway-familiar as they come: a family — here, dad Erik (Richard Jenkins), mom Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her stage role for which she nearly swept the 2016 major awards circuit), older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer), younger daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), the dementia-addled Momo (June Squibb), and Brigid’s boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) — assemble for Thanksgiving dinner at Brigid’s brand-new, as-yet-unfurnished NYC apartment. Family patterns are established, idle gossip is passed, the demons and squabbles of kitchen sink drama accumulate across an increasingly tense afternoon. If this sounds dismissive, these story beats are actually rather skillfully negotiated, ebbing and flowing with appealing rhythm, and building to a scabrous portrait of family, the ways we haunt each other and acknowledging that the ties that bind can as often be a noose as a lifeline.

But if The Humans is to transcend the preordained criticism accorded its cinematic inception, and Karam to prove his mettle as a visual artist, the film’s formal qualities must be of import. And it’s on that front that The Humans is likely to prove most divisive. There’s certainly some symmetry to Karam’s treatment, as many of the aesthetic choices here are roughly as subtle as the source material, and the theatrical tradition as a whole — which is to say, not; this isn’t what you title your play if your game is nuance — but there should be no complaints that the director isn’t going for it. Most notable, and sure to dominate characterizations of The Humans from both admirers and detractors, is its evident horror texture, born of the play itself and one of the reasons its translation to screen makes more sense than most (though it must be said, anyone who misses the influence of psychological horror on American dramatists of the past century hasn’t been paying attention; Karam’s simply made a show of turning subtext to text). The newly-minted director fully seizes on the formal possibilities. Most overt in this regard in the synth-heavy score, interrupting its moody droning and pervasive, diegetic boiler hum with minor chord piano strikes, and camerawork that crawls across walls and snakes through narrow hallways — metaphors of claustrophobia and crumbling facades evident. More impressive is how elegantly Karam casts the viewer as voyeur throughout, the bi-level apartment offering an aural component where off-screen conversations can be heard, while character choreography within this space and compositions that constantly negotiate foreground and background action keep things visually unsettled (it’s not unlike Cristi Piui’s Sieranevada in execution). Helping to sustain this simmering menace is the film’s minimalist production design and striking lighting cues, born of a certain stage influence but organically and effectively incorporated. 

Not everything here works, a dissonance sometimes felt between the actors’ work and the director’s mood-making; Jenkins, Houdyshell, and Yeun all excel at balancing the histrionics with a clear sense of their characters’ interiority, while Feldstein’s work is notably less controlled and Schumer’s flat affect is more distracting than enriching (Squibb is given nothing to do). Still, The Humans, like so many similar works, is a kind of austere melodrama, destined to be divisive. For those willing to ride its fevered wave of passive aggression, there’s plenty more substance and formal playfulness than in your average stage adaptation. It’s a film that firmly plants itself in the twilight zone of family intercourse, allows its camera to haunt — if not stalk — its characters, and pulls on threads of insecurity and resentment to the point of snapping. The sum shares some DNA with the work of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, all looming portent, only without the former’s more grandiloquent leanings and the latter’s laughable psychological hysteria. Your engagement with The Humans likely depends more on your response to that comparison than it does the film’s theatrical origins or cadences.