The Humans {Melbourne International Film Festival} – Film Review

The Humans is an unsettling drama centred around three generations of the Blake family who have gathered at the unfurnished run-down and leaky duplex apartment of youngest daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and partner Richard (Steven Yuen) for Thanksgiving dinner.

As eldest daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) laments recent health and relationship issues, weight watching mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) cares for dementia effected gran Momo (June Squibb), and father Erik (Richard Jenkins) bemoans the leaking pipes and drinks to excess. As afternoon turns to night, strange sounds, power outages and dripping pipes are the least of the Blake family’s problems as tensions reach fever pitch and the confines of this apartment serve as the hotbed for overflowing emotions.

A number of successful plays or Broadway shows have been adapted into films and often stand out. Largely this is due to these stories being set is a single location, as it would have been the case on-stage and it’s up to the filmmakers and actors to make the transition a worthwhile experience.

The Humans is based on a 2016 multiple Tony Award winning Broadway play by Stephen Karem, and here Karem has joined the likes of David Mamet and Mike Leigh by both writing and directing this adaptation of his work. Without a doubt this is 100% his vision undiluted and while it is clearly based on a single act play, I’m amazed at how well Karem makes use of the filmic medium and its differences to stage, considering this marks his debut as a film director.

With slow tracking shots, out of focus unknown entities, and an extremely tense claustrophobic feel, the entire time Karem instinctively knows how to draw the emotions he wants from the audience and has us jumping at shadows in this creepy uncomfortable minimalist character study. More of a slice of life than any real story with a beginning, middle and end, The Humans has us feeling like an empathic fly on the wall witnessing a family struggling to hold it together against the immense stress of financial, health, and relationship troubles.

Featuring a small cast of only six actors, there is an authentic familiar chemistry between them which sells the whole concept accompanied by brilliant performances. I’ve never seen Richard Jenkins give a bad performance and he continues to show that he is one of the finest actors of his generation as the troubled patriarch losing control of his family and his own life. Amy Schumer, known as a polarising comedic talent, turns in the first 100% serious role I’ve seen her give and she makes a smooth transition to dramatic actress.

My personal favourite performance is June Squibb as a grandmother long lost to Alzheimer’s disease, for how understated and yet heartbreaking it is. At times she’s as lifeless as the set dressing, and then there’s moments where she breaks down and you can’t help but feel for her and those around her. Ironically, her character gives the most poignant speech in the whole film although it comes via proxy of Jayne Houdyshell who reprises her Tony Award winning role as Deirdre Blake.

The Humans is impossible to pigeonhole as depending on personal taste, it may be seen as the quintessential ‘nothing happens’ type of movie. I admit, this may be an easier sell as a play than a film. But it is an impressive debut feature for Karem, who in making a haunted house movie with no ghosts, makes us feel as lost, frustrated, and afraid as the characters played by his amazing cast.

The Humans is streaming in Melbourne as part of Melbourne International Film Festival.
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