The house is definitely haunted in “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s skillfully filmed adaptation of his Tony-winning 2016 play. The house in question, it turns out, is a rundown apartment in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood, the kind of prewar wreck that has been patched together over the years by building superintendents of varying degrees of competence.
The walls heave with weird, “Repulsion”-like plaster bulges; the pipes clang; the upstairs neighbor – is there an upstairs neighbor? – treads so heavily that the light fixture sways with every footstep. We meet Erik Blake (Richard Jenkins) standing in the apartment – which is mostly empty – on Thanksgiving Day contemplating the alley outside with skepticism and defeat.
His daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) is moving in with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun); his other daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) has come in from Philadelphia to join the family for an improvised meal around card tables set with paper plates and plastic utensils. Erik’s wife Deirdre (Jane Houdyshell) is in charge of pushing the wheelchair occupied by his mother Momo (June Squibb), who is in the throes of late-stage dementia.
In other words: a typical family holiday with all the laughs, tears, revelations and reckonings the term implies. Unfolding almost in real time, “The Humans” follows a familiar arc of small talk, busyness, family lore and random rituals that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s gone through those motions. Things inevitable get real, as things do, as personalities and histories emerge – some familiar to the characters in question, some explosively unexpected.
Like “The Father” last year, “The Humans” makes the set a character in itself: Karam has concocted a diabolically creaky duplex whose wonky corners and jury-rigged “improvements” take on an increasingly sinister patina as the meal progresses. Audiences expecting the usual drunken outbursts will be relieved to know that “The Humans” largely avoids such histrionic cliches: The emotions here are largely kept in check, the actors conveying their subterranean meanings by way of sideward glances, careful kitchen choreography and minute facial tics suggesting everything from annoyance to barely suppressed hilarity.
We see those details because Karam will often keep his camera on someone listening rather than talking, a novel choice that gives “The Human” an added layer of psychological depth. And he has enlisted a terrific ensemble to bring his everyday horror story to recognizable life. Schumer infuses Aimee with stoic humor and heart-rending vulnerability.
Feldstein conveys a similarly contradictory mix of sunniness and sharp-elbowed hostility. Houdyshell, who originated her role off- and on Broadway, is note-perfect as a woman carrying the weight of unnumbered secrets beneath the seen-it-all air of resignation. And Jenkins, as always, communicates volumes in one single, careworn sigh.
Is the apartment really haunted? “The Humans” isn’t telling. But there’s no denying the family at its center has been visited by trauma – historical, personal, medical, socio-economic – that isn’t going away anytime soon. By the time “The Human” reaches its cleverly open-and-shut ending, we realize that the long day has journeyed into night – just another Thursday for the Blakes, and another modest triumph of making it to tomorrow.
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