When it premiered at Chicago’s American Theater Company in 2014, Stephen Karam’s one-act play The Humans was already something special. Positive reviews and a warm audience reception propelled the production on from there to an off-Broadway run in 2015 and eventually a proper Broadway engagement in 2016, one that earned it six Tony nominations and four wins (including for Best Play). Karam’s sharply observed book covers one Thanksgiving dinner with a family navigating the ins and outs of the many different relationships at play around the table. Now, Karam presents a film adaptation of his own stage show; he’s written the screenplay, and he also directs. Generally speaking, The Humans is a serviceable family drama delivered by a stand-out cast, each of whom embrace Karam’s words to create an atmosphere teeming with that odd sense of familiarity and tension that permeates gatherings with those who know us best—and perhaps too well. Yet while Karam certainly excels in adapting his own words from stage to screen, his filmmaking (this is his debut feature film) unfortunately leaves more to be desired.
Nearly all of The Humans takes place inside the two-story Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her partner Richard (Steven Yeun). They’ve just moved in and the place is so bare that the holiday dinner will have to be celebrated with a folding table and chairs. Brigid’s parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), her older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) and grandmother Momo (June Squibb) have all come to help her settle in, more than willing to have their turkey and stuffing on paper plates if it means getting to see her new place and, most importantly, all be together.
The apartment is essentially a character of its own, a vintage unit with high ceilings, creaking floors and views of the brick walls next door. As the evening progresses, the family covers everything from Aimee’s health to Erik’s employment status to how Brigid and Richard will ever make this rundown apartment into a home. This A-list cast treat the material with the authenticity it deserves, and every performance feels lived in and honest. Even if you’ve seen the stage production (I caught it when the Broadway production toured through Chicago in 2018), this filmed version offers new and interesting perspectives on Karam’s words, as the medium requires a different approach to each conversation than the live version.
It’s that talent with words that ultimately makes some of Karam’s creative choices as a director all the more frustrating. In an effort to create some sort of ominous tension in the proceedings, he teeters awfully close to making the apartment something of a haunted house. There are sequences of taut anticipation and surprise, sudden scares that feel woefully out-of-place in a human drama that is otherwise rife with tension on its own. In other moments, Karam goes for the overtly artistic shot, an abstract that puts us at a remove from the conversations at hand, often literally rooms away. It’s as if he’s worried we wouldn’t have figured out for ourselves that there’s an unspoken distance amongst the family, close as they purport to be. All these come off as amateur filmmaking, the sort of choices that someone new to the game makes when they don’t have the confidence in the material to carry its share of the artistic work.
In the end, seeing a mediocre version of The Humans on film is better than not seeing The Humans at all. Though in this critic’s opinion, if you happen upon a local or touring production of the show, you’d be better serviced to seek it out than this version.
The Humans is now playing at the Siskel Film Center and streaming on Showtime.
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