The directorial debut of writer Stephen Karam, based on his play of the same name, The Humans tells the story of the Blake family as they gather at the new house of couple Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun) for Thanksgiving. Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), her parents, Erik and Deidre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) and her senile grandmother, “Momo” (June Squibb) are present for the festivities, but the celebration soon turns into conflict in the way that only family gatherings can.
It’s a very simple premise, but The Humans makes full use of that simplicity to deliver some effective and intense family drama, playing in a deliberately minimalist space (in both the narrative and cinematography) to great effect. The dilapidated and barren Chinatown house the film is set in throws all of the underlying tension and discomfort amid the various family dynamics at play into sharp, painful focus, highlighting and emphasising the slightest movements and words from its cast.
Karam often uses the cinematic language of the horror genre to emphasise the mounting dread of this family gathering, and is not above the occasional jump scare to really hammer this sense of unease home. The setting is deployed excellently in this regard, with camerawork that focuses on narrow passages and dark corners to create a powerfully claustrophobic atmosphere. This is complemented by effective sound design, with every creak and thud amplified to really add to the sensation of underlying stress and anxiety.
Family drama around the Thanksgiving table is not a new concept for theatre or cinema, but Karam’s writing works with his strong direction, as well as the emotive acting of a talented cast, to make the experience as compelling and engaging as possible. The interconnected web of family dynamics is complex and multi-faceted without being difficult to follow, and the characters all hit a perfect balance of being fun to see on screen and grounded in a genuine – and human – pathos.
The Humans is a very strong directorial debut from Karam, taking a straightforward story concept and elevating it through top-notch cinematography and intelligent writing. It doesn’t land every beat perfectly but that almost becomes part of its charm, and, unlike real family gatherings, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
The Humans is released in select cinemas on 31st December 2021.
Watch the trailer for The Humans here: