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The Humans review – family drama has the holidays bordering on horror

Stephen Karam adapts his own Tony Award-winning play, imbuing it with a cinematic edge while preserving its theatrical temperament

The barren walls of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard’s (Steven Yeun) new lower Manhattan apartment look tea-stained with water damage and cracking plaster as her family flood in for an evening of Thanksgiving celebrations, played out in real-time. The Humans sees playwright-turned-filmmaker Stephen Karam adapt his own Tony-winning one-act play for the screen, preserving its theatrical temperament but imbuing the story with an added cinematic edge.

The Humans is a very different holiday movie, one that borders on a horror as the film delves deeper into the darkness lurking at the core of this family. The entire narrative takes place in Brigid’s two-storey high-ceiling home and yet Karam’s claustrophobically framed shots paint the space like an inescapable fortress. The holidays hold the possibility of terrifying prospects, where truths can be clumsily split like cheap wine from plastic cups.

Brigid’s parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are nitpicking their youngest daughter’s new place while Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (a rare dramatic performance from Amy Schumer), is tiptoeing around trying to maintain a brave face after losing her job, breaking up with her girlfriend, and dealing with a recent medical diagnosis. Also here is Richard, trying to soothe arguments as the gracious host, and Momo (June Squibb), whose dementia is worsening.

As the three generations of the Blake family gather, conversations become heated and the unsaid is… well, said… as pejoratives and chiding contentment join the guests at the table. Emotional frustration wafts around the room like the inescapable musk from the damp. Doors slam, pipes rattle, and floorboards creak as if the house is in conversation with itself. But there are no ghosts here – the haunting eeriness is rooted purely in the horrors of family: notions that fathers can betray trust, that mothers can be cruel, that grandparents won't see their grandchildren grow old.

With a minimal set design, there is nothing for these actors to hide behind as Karam’s lens lingers, making the most of the cinematic ability to control the viewer’s gaze, slow zooms garner an unsettling focus, and reality-defying camera movements through thin walls and floors negates any escape. Dialogue, too, is conducted melodically. Karam orchestrates this ensemble as if they are all different instruments trying to harmonise with one another.

Seeking out the humanity in this tale, these actors aren’t unpicking their characters as much as they are weaving together their individual threads to map a tapestry of generational repressed trauma. Heading the cast is the incredible Jayne Houdyshell, who reprises her Tony-winning role from Karam’s original theatre production and transfers her character’s matriarchal idiosyncrasies from stage to screen with impeccable skill.

It's rare that a single-set theatre piece can be adjusted for a new medium and still translate with the same harrowing reverb as it did on stage. Karam is the key. This is a wholly disturbing directorial debut, a slow-burner that crackles with the offbeat manner of the fake fireplace projected on the apartment wall.

The Humans is now showing in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

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