Review: The Humans (2021 San Diego Film Festival)


Title: The Humans
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stephen Karam
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun
Runtime: 1h 48 mins

What It Is: Set inside a pre-war duplex in downtown Manhattan, The Humans takes place over the course of a single night in which the Blake family gathers to celebrate Thanksgiving. As darkness falls outside the crumbling building, mysterious things start to go bump in the night and family tensions reach a boiling point.

What We Think: An adaptation of the play of the same name, The Humans is a film I was cautiously excited to see. I hadn’t read/seen the Broadway play, and I had only seen the one trailer for the film (which was as ambiguous as can be). However, the cast looked promising (as well as interesting), and I was intrigued to see how one could adapt a one-act play that takes place in one location for the screen. As it turns out, the same person who wrote the play also wrote and directed this adaptation, so needless to say… Stephen Karam does a great job at translating his original story to film.

What I love most about The Humans is the way in which it’s shot – most times it’s difficult to make a single location feel interesting, moreso less in a feature-length film. What this film does so well captures the ambiance of a cold, winter night on Thanksgiving. A howl of the wind, frosted windows, grey outside light streaming in through those windows… this film’s atmosphere is so real, which adds to the grounded and relatable performances by the cast in a huge way, making for a truly engaging adaptation of a play. In simplest terms, this is the best adaptation of a play I’ve seen in recent memory, not because it does what the original likely did so well, but instead because it does it considerably better.

The performances by everyone are great, with two incredible standouts being Beanie Feldstein and… Amy Schumer. A sentence I’d never thought I’d be typing, but here we are. Both actors perform incredibly well and share some of the best scenes in the entire film. In fact, it only took a single scene for me to instantly emphasize and relate to Schumer’s character thanks to a deeply touching moment alongside Richard Jenkins. The film tackles the subjects of illness, death, and aging – while also exploring mental illness, religion, and most importantly: family disfunction. The cast couldn’t have performed their characters better. The writing is so natural and the direction is as equally fluid, so immersive to the point where I felt like I was sitting right with them at dinner… truly remarkable!

All of these aspects are fantastic, and they really are what makes the film so enjoyable – yet there is one flaw I have with The Humans, which is that of the ‘horror’ elements it tries to introduce. Needless to say, I felt like a couple of those moments were a bit distracting from the core of the film’s story. I didn’t feel like we had to see a character wandering off from a conversation to another room, only to crash into something by accident in order to make us feel tension/frightened; the existential dread of the family’s harsh conversations and observations on life did that quite effectively already. However, I will mention that the film’s closing scene chilled me to the bone and was the only moment where I felt genuinely disturbed… I just wish that those other scenes could’ve accomplished the same level of fear.

Our Grade: B+; The Humans is a very well-made film, one that makes me feel like this is the definitive version of Stephen Karam’s play (despite having some silver screen slips here and there). Everyone in the cast is terrific, the cinematography and sound design is creative and unique, and the story/direction is as good as it gets. Definitely recommend watching this one at night – it’ll be a genuinely immersive experience!

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