‘The Humans’ Review: Come for the cast, stay for the honest depiction of family dinners

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Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Human beings can crumble without moving. It’s an internal thing: an alarm that goes off inside your head or heart that there’s an attack coming. The subtle yet abrasive attack from another human, one that you weren’t ready for, hits you awkwardly and you crumble.

The Humans,” written and directed by Stephen Karam (based off his play), uses human frailty as a metaphor to describe the decay of an apartment building. It’s in a broken-down New York apartment, one that just blocks from Ground Zero, where a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner.

The Plot

Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), parents of Aimee (Jewish actress/comedian Amy Schumer) and Brigid (Jewish actress Beanie Feldstein), along with Bridget’s boyfriend (Steven Yeun) and their grandmother Momo (June Squibb, also Jewish, from Vandalia, Ill.). But I wouldn’t call this a festive get-together.

There’s a legitimate layer of dread that forms over their interactions, the messy family check-ups,and extra pressure of answering a certain question wrong. It’s all taken to the next level. It’s as if uncomfortable sat in front of a loud speaker and just boomed for two hours around an apartment where whispering becomes shouting. The audience doesn’t know if the threat is something physical, or if it’s more of an existential crisis going on between these six people.

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Erik can’t stop spotting leaking pipes and problematic issues arising around his daughter’s new place, while Deirdre uses a combination of snarky humor and dry wit to communicate with her kids. Squibb’s Momo, plagued by dementia, is as oblivious to the situation as we are watching the events unfold. Rich is essentially the husband who tells you it’s OK before having to go fix a burnt-out bulb or something else broken.

Slow Burn Drama

If case you haven’t picked up the drift, “The Humans” is a slow-burn drama–moving and existing like the original play that it was based on. Karam isn’t interested in real monsters or threats that are easy to see; he is more interested in plugging into the deceptive nature of human beings during the holidays, where personal plans are put on blast and every decision is measured for worth. When the mess hits the fan in the third act, the reason for the movie’s restlessness becomes clear. That will be the moment you’ll decide if this movie was worthwhile or not.

I liked its lack of hesitation in depicting a family teetering on the edge of separation and applauded the cast’s willingness to lean into the understated drama. While the horror crowd will keep their eyes on that mysterious steam outside the window and the decay of the apartment all around, other minds will notice the real machinations of Karam’s script. It’s patient and doesn’t bend to a viewer who needs something big to happen.

Impressive Performances

Out of the cast, Houdyshell impresses the most. There’s something twisted about Deirdre from the jump; she is the one character who has no interest in keeping the unsaid hidden. More than a specific line reading or big scene, there’s a tragic heartbreak to the actress’ face that made her character’s arc more heart-rendering.

Karam’s moral is that human beings can feel more isolated and messed up without much help from the outside world. They don’t need a terrorist attack or monster to create drama in their life. In this world, you can build your own cell or future with choices, ones that the writer/director wants us to get into here. While the film’s pace was maddening at times, this is the epitome of a play doing its best to act like a movie.

Easier to admire than truly get close to, “The Human” benefits from a strong cast and an unforced setup that slowly reveals itself. While it isn’t a whole family in one room kind of movie experience, it’s an honestly told one.

“The Humans” is available to stream for free on Hulu and Showtime.