TIFF 2021: ‘The Humans’ is a Fantastically Acted if Redundant Debut

Finally, an A24 horror film about the terror of tension-riddled family gatherings.
humans in The Humans

This review of The Humans is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.

Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her partner Richard (Steven Yuen) have just moved into a rundown pre-war duplex in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Before they have a chance to catch their breath, they are tasked with hosting Brigid’s family, who’ve journeyed from out of town for Thanksgiving. Brigid’s working-class parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) can’t help but fuss and critique the couple’s new home, picking at the chipped paint and thin walls that form a physical affront to the life they envisioned for their musically gifted daughter.

While Erik and Deidre complain and fret about burnt-out lightbulbs and noisy upstairs neighbors, Erik’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (June Squibb) fades into the background, as ignored and cumbersome as a piece of furniture that must be negotiated around tight corridors and iron staircases. As the evening proceeds, the well-meaning veneer of the family’s habitual teasing begins to crack, revealing long-standing grievances and uncomfortable developments in the family’s rapidly decaying dynamic.

The Humans marks the directorial debut of Stephen Karam, adapting his own 2014 Tony Award-winning stage play. Karam’s two prior interactions with Hollywood (2017’s Speech & Debate and 2018’s The Seagull) encompassed screenwriting credits. And if his work behind the camera in The Humans is anything to go by, Karam has a bright big-screen future ahead of him.

When it comes to stage-to-screen adaptations the same question always lurks in the wings. Namely: what does the film do to justify its existence? How does it leverage cinematic language to deepen, complicate, or twist its source material? I cannot comment on how The Humans does or does not transform Karam’s one-act play (I missed it, for shame!). But one consciously cinematic decision deserves mention: this film feels like a straight-up horror movie.

Making ample use of its new cinematic toolkit The Humans readily drums up and accentuates the more horrific elements of its story. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is suffocating, pinching the camera between tight hallways and minuscule rooms, rendering the apartment both cavernous and claustrophobic. Likewise, Tammy Douglas’ sound mixing allows the creaks and groans of the young couple’s apartment to take on an especially hellish aspect; a tension-riddled modern inferno of hydraulic bangs, decrepit floorboards, and architectural groans.

The Humans largely falls prey to the adaptational trap of feeling “stage” by relying chiefly on dialogue. Though, perhaps this is bound to happen when the entire action of your story takes place in one location. The Humans is bound to invite comparisons to other claustrophobic script-to-screen familial dramas; it is an unabashed graduate of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? School of pressure-cooker, single-location group therapy sessions where dark secrets invariably crawl out of the woodwork by the final act.

Ultimately, we have seen stories like this before to the point where the film often threatens to tip over into self-parody. The fact that it is called “The Humans” feels especially (even laughably) on the nose. It’s like something Barton Fink would pitch had the Coen Brothers’ dropped their pretentious playwright into the 21st century. And yet, The Humans’ decision to bring its theatrical genre’s latent horror elements to the forefront remains an interesting and frequently successful addition that I have yet to seen executed with this level of intention and finesse.

These kinds of plays (as well as their film adaptations) are frequently designed around ratcheting up tension and discomfort that makes you want to crawl out of your skin. And it is refreshing to see a film such as this lean consciously into a cinematic language that allows a familial terror trip to feel simultaneously grounded and expressionistic. Tense family gatherings are horror shows, at their core. Why not throw in a jump scare and a clanging pipe or two?

Every single performance in The Humans is lived-in and devastating; from Yeun’s terminally people-pleasing Richard to the always fantastic Jenkins’ turn as the family’s hypocritically judgemental patriarch. Amy Schumer’s reputation in comedy (for better or worse) makes her affecting performance as Aimee, Brigid’s heartbroken and chronically ill older sister, a complete surprise. She more than holds her own in a top-shelf cast that is firing on all cylinders.

The Humans is more than likely going to draw comparisons to last year’s The Father (another script-to-screen family drama that features a character with Alzheimer’s). That Squibb spends the film as a haunting presence, ever-present and yet largely unacknowledged, ought to quell any lazy claims of redundancy. As Deirdre, Houdyshell is an absolute standout, returning to the role she inhabited the role in both the play’s off-Broadway and Tony Award-winning run.

Impeccably acted with clear and admirable efforts to expand its in-text existential dread into a decidedly cinematic space, The Humans never quite manages to overcome the clichés of a theatrical family dinner drama. However well-executed, every narrative reveal and character archetype feels wholly predictable: the parents’ religious high ground belies an unspoken sin far greater than either of their daughters’ shortcomings; illness and age are literally wheeled from room-to-room as a fleshy, objectified memento mori, and there’s a tried-and-true third act screaming match you can see coming a mile away. If “filmed plays” of this ilk tend to leave you cold, you’d do best to leave The Humans on ice. All told, it’s nice to see an A24 horror film that isn’t a direct rip of the work of Robin Hardy.

Meg Shields: Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.