CERTIFIED WEIRD: The Humans is a self-involved look at the holidays

The Humans is supposed to be a multifaceted look at families during the holidays but transforms into a deeply interpersonal look at individuals uninvolved in each other’s lives with their own fucked up set of problems. Adapted from a stage play written by director Stephen Karam, the stagey elements of the film allow the narrative to jump from a micro story to the next, focusing on characters in different parts of this dilapidated Manhattan apartment. It splashes in some surreal with the Lol Crowley cinematography, mainly the blocking and framing – capturing these characters in bizarre states that aren’t normal. The sprinkled-on horror elements give the direction an edge, and the performances lean into the entropy.

We see Erik (Richard Jenkins), the patriarch of the family, become obsessed with an indistinct figured woman hanging out outside a window next to the apartment. Aimee (Amy Schumer), Erik’s daughter, spends a majority of the film in the bathroom masturbating to underlit phone screens. Richard (Steven Yeun), the lone outsider, spends his screen time discussing his hilariously nerdy interest in glorious detail. Yeun’s performance is one of the best, alongside Jenkins, and maybe the best role in the entire film – Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), the mother and punching bag of the family, plays a pathetic version of a mother desperate for approval and attention. Those three are wonderful.

However, Amy Schumer and Beanie Feldstein aren’t as convincing and those scenes break down when they’re forced to carry. The character work just wasn’t compelling and more one-dimensional than the rest of the cast. Only when the other characters are involved, does the writing feel less contrived and obvious. The script, as a concept, does work quite well and that’s mostly due to the detail of Karam’s direction. The intense claustrophobia and debilitating setting tell a layered story, making every interaction come from weird, unnerving places. It also allows Karam to lean into surrealism.

Circling back to Crawley’s cinematography, the taut compositions play into the incoherent nature of the screenplay. The camera placement is often found two rooms away from the characters, through a slim doorway or underneath some arches. The camera also gets placed in between rooms, allowing for excellent blocking and deeper storytelling. Karam wanted to tell this the way he does the stage play, and sends characters all over the house, with the camera catching a small glimpse of each one. It’s not always the most effective way to tell the story, but there are moments here that are mind-blowing. 

In conclusion, it’s a film that leaves a sour taste, especially when watching it on Thanksgiving night as I did. Its pessimism is contagious and gloops onto these characters, interested in showing the ugly underbelly of these families. It’s uncomfortable, but of all the fantastical elements of the script, the uncomfortableness is one of the most grounded aspects of the film. 

Extra Notes:

  • Nick Houy’s music is fucking awesome. Wish it was used way more often in the film
  • If the characters were casted differently, I would have enjoyed these characters more but as it stands, it’s a missed opportunity 
  • Although, Jenkins plays an immaculate weirdo and he’s undoubtedly the weirdest part of this family


★★★ (out of 5)

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