The opening credits of the The Humans — which will be available to watch or stream Wednesday on Showtime — situate the audience in the center of interior courtyards, looking up to dull, gray November skies confined on all sides by anonymous brick apartment buildings. A minimalist score by composer Nico Muhly accompanies the parade of captive skies. It brings to mind Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’s Qatsi trilogy, three films of increasing desperation about the way technology alters the human experience — how the new grows old, the natural into artificial.
Stephen Karam, who wrote the Tony Award-winning play The Humans in 2016 and now has adapted the material into a remarkable film, has similar concerns. Given the Glass composition (of another variety) that plays over the end credits, the inspiration is clear. Karam is focused on spaces, too, and the nature of obsolescence. He uses the cinematic medium to its fullest, creating one of the most captivating stage-to-screen adaptations in recent memory. (The film opens theatrically on Wednesday and also will be available to stream to Showtime subscribers.)
It’s Thanksgiving, and the Blake family — father Erik (Richard Jenkins), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), elder daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) and younger daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) — have gathered inside the slightly rundown Manhattan apartment Brigid shares with her new fiancé, Richard (Steven Yeun).
What ails them? Almost too much to say. The revelations pile up throughout the evening, not in moments of melodramatic release but over sad, desperate conversation as each member works up the nerve to tell their own family how badly the past year has gone for them. Some, like Aimee, have had the world slam down hard upon her. Her longterm girlfriend left her and she’s developed a medical condition that requires surgery. Others have found themselves in a hell of their own making, like Erik, who sees everyone moving on from his sphere of influence. The Blakes are a working class family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, religious and upright. But with his daughters living their lives in Philadelphia and New York, what else is there for a man at the end of his career to do besides make bad decisions?
The Humans isn’t a hopeless dissection of the American family, though. The Blakes love one another. They’re just having trouble doing it now, as their dynamic changes and different members find themselves trying out new roles.
The dialogue, character development and sharp story seems like it would be engrossing on stage (hence the Tony, I guess), but translating such a script onto the screen always requires a cinematic vision to make it work. Plenty of plays fail at making that leap, for one reason or another. It’s fortunate Karam understood how to augment his script for the big screen, largely by making the apartment a multifaceted setting for his chamber drama.
He accomplishes this in multiple ways. The aforementioned courtyard contemplation is a clear metaphor within the script itself, spoken by the characters and brought to life as the introduction to the story. But the set design of the apartment is stellar. Brigid and Richard are starting to establish themselves as adults. Starting is the key word. Despite hosting Thanksgiving, they’ve barely moved into their space. Nothing fills the cavernous apartment besides a table, some chairs and a large package of toilet paper bought just for the party. Shadows darken hallways as the evening arrives earlier than anyone would like. Lightbulbs, left by the landlord, continually pop over the course of their fraught Thanksgiving dinner, forcing them to unpack different lighting implements as the night goes on. Christmas lights illuminate one dark corner. It’s an unconventional home for an unconventional family gathering, a disintegrating family inside the husk of something built to stand for the ages.
Everyone in the cast is perfect in their roles, but Jenkins stands out at Erik, who has already lost everything he could seemingly lose as a father. Aimee and Brigid have moved on and even given up on the Christian faith he raised them to follow. He hates New York after a near-death incident on 9/11, a shadow of what could’ve taken him from a life he had loved until now. Nightmares of a faceless woman haunt him. Personal failings have destroyed a career he loved. He barely gets along with Deirdre. It doesn’t take much for him to criticize the urban lifestyles led by his children. Erik was probably a good father in his prime but now has no idea who or what he’s supposed to be to the world or even to his own girls. Jenkins’ performance captures all of it. As the story comes to a close, and darkness starts to envelop him, everything in Erik’s demeanor changes. Jenkins is just great.
Look, there are plenty of single-setting dramas about families coming apart. Karam, with his singular vision, makes The Humans feel new, exciting and essential — a story about the spaces we build within ourselves and what happens when they degrade into uselessness.