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TIFF 2021 Review: The Humans – “one of the more complex dramas of the festival”

Image courtesy of TIFF

In every festival comes a film you didn’t see coming, and for me during this Toronto International Film Festival, this is, so far, the unexpected one.  We had all heard the buzz about The Power of the Dog, Belfast and Spencer – and they are all magnificent – but The Humans was a film I knew nothing about.  I hadn’t seen a production of this Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize finalist on stage.  But, I typically love film adaptations of plays, and this was no exception.

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The Humans was written by Stephen Karam, who not only adapted this screenplay, but also makes his directorial debut, and a formidable one at that.  The plot of the film is a simple one, of a family coming together for Thanksgiving dinner.  They arrive at the new apartment of Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yuen).  It’s a run down duplex, in a building with claustrophobic hallways.  Before they’ve barely moved in any furniture, Brigid’s parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her 2016 Tony Award winning role) arrive with Erik’s mother (June Squibb), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, in tow.  Brigid’s big sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) has also arrived from Philadelphia.  As the Blake Family Thankgsiving gets underway, differences in ideologies are exposed, conversations become heated, bombshells are revealed and all around them the apartment itself even seems to acknowledge the discord.

This is part of the unexpected nature of The Humans, the fact that the apartment itself is as much a character as a setting.  And it lends itself to creating some tense moments and plenty of jump scares.  Yes, The Humans at times plays like a psychological thriller, using horror elements such as a slow creak of a door opening all on its own or an unknown lady walking outside in the courtyard, just a blurry outline visible through the old windows.  With paint on the wall bubbled from water damage, stains from leaks on the ceiling and creepy shadows in abundance writer-director Karam sets the scene for an eerie, unsettled undertone to this family dinner.  As lightbulbs in the apartment start blowing out room by room, darkness closes in on the Blakes with a sense of impending doom.

It’s these details that may work even better on film than they did on stage – the cracks in the walls and crud around the pipes that might get lost in the back of a theatre.  Karam, working with cinematographer Lol Crawley (Vox Lux) work wells within his ‘stage’, often filming through doorways making the audience feel as if we are on the outside looking in, thoughtful observers of this American family.  There is also a lot of cross-talk between characters that may be picked up more easily on film – Aimee and Brigid talking and laughing in another room as Erik and Deirdre are sitting at the dining room table, or characters overhearing things said off-screen.  It’s often that the focus stays on one particular character in frame as other speak around them, and it’s an effective way of bringing us closer to the character’s reactive emotion.

Like most plays brought to film however it is the performers that can make or break an adaptation.  There are no weak links in this ensemble, and Jenkins and Houdyshell in particular have award-worthy turns.  There is in fact a wonderful chemistry between all of these actors.  While I’ve seen Schumer in a Broadway play previously, it was still more comedic, so it’s wonderful to see her stretch her dramatic legs here so effectively (don’t worry she still brings some sarcastic humour to the dinner table as well).

The Humans, while operating under the most simplistic of plots, is one of the more complex dramas of the festival and I’m sure one can draw even more from the film with repeated viewings.  As the characters discuss their lives, issues relating to religion, mental health, elder care, success, and failure all emerge.  But for all their differences and grievances, for all the anxiety that is pressing in on them, as the apartment presses in on them in equal measure, the Blakes keep circling around to the meaning of family, the stability and importance of having this group to come back to, to rely upon.  Something, which at its core makes us all human.

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