'The Humans' Is the Thanksgiving From Hell Movie You Need to See
The drama with Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun premiered at TIFF.
Thanksgiving is not a holiday of many movies. Sure, certain entries get trotted out every year as examples—Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Pieces of April—but it's a celebration that's better known for the TV it has inspired. You know, the countless Friends episodes and other sitcom ephemera. However, The Humans, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by A24, comes banging into the Thanksgiving movie canon with a deeply unnerving portrayal of a family gathering.
Director and writer Stephen Karam adapts the film from his own Tony-winning play, the story of the Blakes, who all convene in one dingy, possibly haunted Chinatown apartment for a sparse feast. It would be tempting to call The Humans a horror movie, but it's really horror adjacent. There are no ghostly reveals, just the spirits of broken dreams, fractured relationships, and what might have been. It makes a good companion piece with another A24 production, 2015's similarly Thanksgiving-themed Krisha, another intimate project about a chaotic force descending on turkey day.
The plot is slight. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) has just moved into a duplex, basement-level apartment in Chinatown with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). They are hosting Thanksgiving for her sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) and her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (the masterful character actress Jayne Houdyshell reprising her role from the stage production). Also in tow is Brigid's grandmother Momo (June Squibb), who is confined to a wheelchair and is largely nonverbal, save for the occasional screams in terror.
The apartment herself is as much a member of the cast as anyone else. It thumps and oozes and creaks and breaks. Every so often a loud banging sound erupts from above, which Brigid and Richard attribute to an elderly woman living on the floor above them, but they sound too loud and otherworldly to be just that. Karam keeps the score to a minimum except when Nico Muhly's compositions erupt in bursts, almost piercing the eardrums.
From the moment he arrives, Erik seems out of sorts. Doom hangs over him: He keeps reminding Brigid and Richard that they live not too far from where the towers fell on 9/11, and are located in a flood zone. The veneer of cheeriness that all holidays bring fills the room, but this is also a family that knows how to poke each other's wounds. Aimee is reeling from a breakup and dealing with the symptoms of colitis; Brigid is wondering if she's moved in too fast with Richard and whether she'll ever make a career out of composing. And both sisters have the ability to turn good-natured ribbing of their religious mother into something crueler. Houdyshell is magnificent: A close-up of her holding back tears as she stares at a dessert plate is heartbreaking.
Karam shoots from the apartment's archways and crevices, keeping the characters often at a distance as if to show how they are at the mercy of something bigger than themselves. These moments can often be grimly funny—the characters are repeatedly spooking each other entering and exiting the bathroom—but a terror lurks in the way he lets the environment breathe. Occasionally, his camerawork is almost too busy and restless, but it's mostly extremely effective.
A couple of secrets about the nature of the place are revealed, but The Humans is less about the twists than it is about the unmistakable feeling that something is wrong. It's the feel-bad entertainment that Thanksgiving deserves.