Stephen Karam’s The Humans – A Perfect Portrait of Family Life?

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Recently, my coursemate Inés put a message in the group chat asking if we wanted to join her in watching ‘The Humans’ in the Dukes at 8:30pm.

Being a grandma, my first response was, “God, that seems a bit late”, but then I realised I hadn’t seen her since before Christmas, so I should probably try. I knew nothing other than snippets (from a beautiful short trailer), mixes of blue and yellow lighting, contrasts in dark and light, tone and feeling which was enough to pique my interest.

Instantly we are introduced to the claustrophobia of being in a family, beginning with low angles of the New York cityscape; we seem to be staring straight into the sky as if trying to escape the movie before it even begins. Once acquainted, this feeling of claustrophobia permeates the entire narrative.

The Humans centres around a family at an American Thanksgiving and takes place in one evening, in an apartment with two floors, which is all the context we need to become enveloped in this family and in their highs and lows. We both love and hate them, which owes in part to the film’s perfect mix of comedy and sadness, and it plays with this much like it plays with human emotion. There were times where I couldn’t help but laugh, but times where I just couldn’t stop myself from crying, perhaps because we see ourselves almost perfectly in them. Although they belittle and berate each other, this reminds me of how I act with my family. We know that they will continue to unconditionally love us no matter what we say.

Stephen Karam perfectly takes what had been his stage play and adapts it to screen, especially when directing conversations. It is never stagnant, thanks to close-ups of mirrors, windows, and hallways to force the viewer to question the film’s themes. However, it is Lol Crawley, the cinematographer, who truly shines in this film. He constantly plays with focus, allowing us to feel as if we are embedded in the action without seeing everything. The gaps in our knowledge and sight encourage us to pay attention to the efforts of the skeleton cast.

Mirrors play a vital role in this film, and the fragmented eyesight he bestows on the camera allows us to reflect on who and what we see. Characters are forced to reflect on themselves and how they must forget everything they are feeling for this one evening and just be there for their family. There is one mirror in the bathroom that the camera focuses on specifically. It is like a mosaic, but the lingering camera work forces us to question how the characters feel within this fragmented view.

But do we like all the characters? I think we aren’t meant to. As the film’s title provokes, they are humans. The family must grapple with their own struggles, at times forcing the audience to question how we would feel in their situation. Deidre Blake (Jayne Houdyshell), the mother, is the most empathetic character. She gets the brunt of her daughter’s anger and is poked fun at and criticised, which is not to say that she doesn’t dish it out equally, but her relationship with both her husband and daughters is a perfect example of how it feels to be trapped, and her subsequent emotional breakdown is one of the most poignant scenes of the film.

We are also presented with an example of the outsider in a family dynamic through the character of Richard (the younger daughter Brigid’s boyfriend), played by Steven Yeun. Interestingly, we only learn a surface-level amount about him, yet it emphasises just how little the family would also know, apart from Brigid. He represents the viewer as we begin to question the family’s movements from our own outside perspective.

The characters of Brigid and Amy are played perfectly by Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer respectively. Whilst I am not the biggest fan of Amy Schumer, I thought she was brilliant in capturing the struggles of being the eldest child in each scene. However, she is often the one to make the first joke and offer help to other characters, yet Brigid (Feldstein), mirrors what we would expect of an entitled younger child.

Amidst these characters, we struggle to like Erik Blake, the father, played brilliantly by Richard Jenkins. Throughout the film, he is continuously startled by loud noises, forcing him and the viewer to connect with what is happening within the scene. With each loud noise, we are jarred back awake, pushing us into the diegesis. We learn of Erik’s dreams and how he dreams of a woman with no face forcing him to walk into a dark tunnel. Whilst his family brush this off as a joke, we learn that it is linked to past trauma surrounding the 9/11 attacks, as well as his guilt over not properly being able to provide for his family.

The most startling impression is made when Erik combines with the final shot. The camera zooms out into an extreme wide, allowing us to see both the bottom and top floor of the apartment. Erik sits in the dark, with only a small light to see. His sobs seem amplified throughout the apartment. However, the distance created by the camera makes us feel disconnected from his pain and view this more objectively as a human experience. This white light is broken by Brigid opening the door as yellow light floods the darkness, yet she is nowhere near her father. Here, we see how both mother and father hide their pain from their children and almost feel shame in their feelings. The film’s ending juxtaposes the opening, with a wide-long shot and a door closing on its own, to create a completely dark screen. Yet, it doesn’t seem any less claustrophobic. We still struggle with the same emotions.

Ultimately, The Humans perfectly grapples with all that makes us so, whether this is mental health, sexuality, illness, or joy and pain. We both dislike the characters and feel their happiness just as we dislike them. Their joy at the most minor things, such as their grandmother returning from her state of dementia to say a prayer with them. It perfectly captures what it is to be a family and the hardship of being human.

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