With stage to screen adaptations, there is always a fear of staginess. Fundamentally, The Humans (which falls in this category, and is brought to the screen by its playwright, Stephen Karam) does not look like a play. The film employs a muted horror syntax throughout, despite being a straightforward family drama (in which the only actual horror is complex and fractured dynamics). This, and a huge commitment to this aesthetic, makes it clear that this is a film, not a play. It is a film that looks like how films look. The issue is, the aesthetic doesn’t help it. Yes, the stage to screen adaptation is a distinct one, but that doesn’t mean it works.
The film focuses purely on a single evening, a family of six in a pre-war New York apartment. It’s Thanksgiving and the usual family get together is slightly augmented by a new addition, Bridget’s (Bernie Feldstein) partner Richard (Steven Yeun). It is their apartment and they have invited Bridget’s sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), their mother (Jayne Houdyshell), father (Richard Jenkins) and grandmother (June Squibb), affectionately referred to as Momo. The narrative is the course of the evening, in which we take in precisely observed familial interactions that, at their best, reveal something true and resonant about humans and their habits.
The narrative is slight, though. It doesn’t meander as such, as there is no distinct direction, but it does impressively commit to just chronicling an evening. In doing so, it gains relevance and provides insights. At a point, it gets a bit overwrought and, throughout, doesn’t do a good job of balancing all of its characters. Each is given a clear problem, or struggle, which makes the whole thing feel human (clearly the aim), but this stacking of conflicts leads to a structural imbalance, especially as there is no divergent narrative that ties this all together. Our tale, as much as there is one, bends around characters and what they reveal through conversation. And, to a large extent, this really works. It allows people to be people and it allows us to consider the weight of cumulative experiences. At other points, however, it feels listless and, at its worst, oddly contrived. This only really occurs towards the end, where the film feels the need to become climactic, and to have some kind of escalating emotional stakes. It does mirror the tempo of a family gathering, where things get heated and do boil over, but it doesn’t do this that naturally. It relies on last minute surprises, a tactic at odds with its previous approach to storytelling.
The primary issue, though, is the filmmaking. The constant reminder that it isn’t a play just makes it feel very artificial. There is an arthouse-horror-by-way-of-Ozu feel at points, in which we watch the family at the back of the frame in low static shots (foregrounding the house). This would work as a strictly dramatic device, it works for Ozu, allowing locations to do storytelling in a way that makes things more microcosmic. However, everything is underlit like a horror film, with a sinister soundscape and uncanny, slow zooms. We also have arty b-roll: cuts to feathers on windowsills or cracks in walls. The decay and mess around is there to be a thematic pairing but it just feels forced, one repeated technique that feels stapled on (just there to create ‘cinema’). Perhaps it is a problem because this syntax doesn’t fit the film. The horror stylings make the drama feel less impactful, rather than more. It does leave you waiting for something as opposed to experiencing the evening as its own kind of horror (which is also not quite the register of the film, the dialogue’s subtlety and precision is not matched by the filmmaking). The film speaks too loudly with its visual approach, not allowing the conversations to carry the weight they need to.
When it is allowed to just be conversations and human moments, it is often very good. At points it is forced but the performances are uniformly strong and it gets close to really revealing something, to being truly human. This is just interrupted by the aesthetic in a way that jars rather than assists. It is an interesting juxtaposition, and foregrounds the themes, but does so at the expense of realism.