‘The Humans’ sets the table for a funny, harrowing Thanksgiving
Jayne Houdyshell, in the role that won her a Tony on Broadway, is the standout in an ensemble that includes Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins and Beanie Feldstein.
When we talk about the most memorable Thanksgiving movies, the list is paltry compared to the enormous roster of the best Christmas films, but there are some Turkey Day perennials, including Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” and let’s not forget the “You cut the turkey without me!” scene in “Avalon” and the fact Rocky Balboa had his first date with Adrian Pennino on Thanksgiving Day 1975, when Rocky paid a Zamboni driver $10 for 10 minutes of ice time on a closed skating rink.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Stephen Karam, based on his play. Rated R (for some sexual material and language). Running time: 108 minutes. Opens Wednesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
We can now add to the menu the stark and searing and darkly funny and harrowing family drama “The Humans,” with Stephen Karam adapting his Tony-winning, avant-garde, one-act stage production (which had its premiere at the American Theater Company in Chicago in 2014). Taking place in just one locale, “The Humans” is decidedly stagey and yet still cinematically effective, as we spend an evening with three generations of a close-knit but dysfunctional family who have gathered at the youngest daughter’s just-rented New York City apartment for a combination housewarming/Thanksgiving dinner replete with gossip, revelations, grievances, clashes, hugs, tears, laughs, inside family references, medical updates, strange disturbances and some genuinely terrifying moments.
And that’s without a Bears/Lions game on the TV.
“The Humans” takes place within a spacious but dilapidated pre-war basement duplex apartment in the Chinatown neighborhood where the movers haven’t even arrived yet but aspiring composer/barkeep Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), a trust fund kid who’s studying to be a social worker, are welcoming Brigid’s family from Scranton, including grandmother Momo (June Squibb), who’s in a wheelchair and suffering from dementia; Brigid’s parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), old-school Irish Catholics, and Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), a corporate lawyer who still pines for her ex-girlfriend and is battling a serious intestinal disorder. From the moment they’re all together — or splintered off into groups of two or three in the kitchen or a hallway — the family members immediately fall into their familiar rhythms of speech and behavior, for better or worse.
“The Humans” is filled with small touches, as when a drink is spilled or a prayer is said or a confession is given or someone makes a passive-aggressive observation, that will ring true with just about anyone who has ever slogged through a tumultuous Thanksgiving gathering. Not much happens, but so much happens. We know that before the night is over, things will be said and actions will be taken that will forever change everyone. There’s no avoiding it.
Writer-director Karam and his cinematographer Lol Crawley move the camera about in a disturbingly effective style that combines intense close-ups of faces and flaws in the apartment with horror-movie-style shots. (Throughout the story, we keep wondering if the jarring, startling sounds from the apartment above are simply an old lady clunking about — or something far more sinister.) As you’d expect from this cast, the performances are uniformly excellent, with the standout being Jayne Houdyshell, the only holdover from the Broadway production, who reprises her Tony-winning role and is mesmerizing as an ordinary woman with an extraordinary capacity to get through the night, the week, the year, the life, she’s been given.