Play to film adaptations have always been a thing, but it seems like over the past few years they have really started to become a natural progression for any successful play. Last year we were able to get the emotional adaptations of The Father and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and this year we trade emotion for horror with Stephen Karam’s The Humans.
Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning one-act play of the same name was lauded for its ability to build a striking and effervescent atmosphere surrounding the play. When adapted to film, Karam was able to expand on the more visual side of things in a much more evocative way, pulling the audience into this night whether they like it or not.
What Karam, who directs his own play here, gets so beautifully right is the ability to tell the story through visuals, and this stunning film is able to build the atmospheric tension so well. Whether it be the leaky walls, burnt bulbs, or stained ceiling; everything in this movie matters. The apartment isn’t just a small enclosed space aiming to trap us in with the family over the course of the night, but a character itself, a lifeforce pushing us to the brink of insanity with every wall bubble and distorted glass.
The framing of this film is told in such a way to build upon the tension of the scenes. Karam creates such an uncomfortable space in this film for the audience by including multiple optical layers – keeping us completely distant from the actors in the story. There are situations in which Karam won’t show the person who is speaking on screen, and instead chooses to show the person they are speaking at. This not only gets us in the apartment with the family, but amplifies the words that are being spoken, allowing the audience to have a genuine reaction to them as well as they become part of the story.
Which these words being spoken mean just as much as the discernible space of this film. Karam pens one of the sharpest scripts of the entire year and does it in a way that makes every single moment count. For any play to screen adaptation to work, there has to be meaningful dialogue behind it, and for this film to be an adaptation of a one-act play, it had to be done right. Karam had a lot to work with in expanding the action of the play onto a broader scene, but also had to incorporate the striking dialogue, which he did flawlessly. Told in subtle, and a lot of times hilarious ways, the characters never get into long screaming matches trying to one up the other, but internally suffer from everything said from one of the other family members.
There is a common division with everyone in the apartment. Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are at a complete disconnect with their two daughters Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Aimee (Amy Schumer), and Brigid’s boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). The conversations between the family feel realistic whether it be religion vs therapy or passion vs stability. There was a lack of understanding between each member of the family that really made you think if any single person had the best intentions for the other, or for themselves.
Which this kind of rousing dialogue doesn’t work without a committed and believable cast. Each member of this film held their own in their own kind of way. Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, and Amy Schumer all provide some honest and real moments of family drama that help the film feel as grounded as it is psychologically tense. June Squibb plays the family’s mother/grandmother who is suffering from dementia and is brilliant as she consistently comes in and out of knowing and not knowing her surroundings.
However, the standout performances in this film come from Jayne Houdyshell and Richard Jenkins – both of which should be considered for major awards love. Houdyshell, who won a Tony for her performance in the 2016 play, transfers her role from stage to screen effortlessly. She gives the more subtle performance of the two as she experiences this disconnection internally. She speaks softly but passive-aggressively; trying to find the way to defend herself while also not outwardly attacking her family. She truly wants what is best for her family, but tries to go about it in her way.
Richard Jenkins gives one of the best performances of his career. As a father and son, Erik is trying so hard to not have everything fall apart in front of him. Jenkins plays perfect opposite of Houdyshell, because he is the less subtle of the two. There aren’t any bursts of rage, as he is more open in his dialogue with his family. He can recognize the imperfections in the apartment, but he doesn’t know how to fix them, and ultimately that dawns back on his own struggles within his family. The climax of the film is beautifully and wistfully shown through the frightened and panic-stricken Erik, who feels so separated from his family, with only a future of forget ahead of him. I feared for him in this moment, not because I felt as though something bad was going to happen, but because I knew he had lost control in a way he hadn’t in so long.
The Humans is the most haunting film of the year, because it’s the most real film of the year. It takes the awkward moments trapped with family and amplifies it in a soul-stirring way. Perfectly reasonable moments are turned into jump scares because of the tension built within the apartment. One of the aspects of the play that transferred to the screen so well was the sound design. It didn’t matter if it was a neighbor, a trash compactor, a closing door, or a ticking clock, every sound had a reason for being a part of the film, and every sound added to the stirring eeriness that surrounded the family.
While I don’t think every play needs to be adapted to the screen, I think the best ones are the ones that use the expanded medium to build upon the foundation that has been laid out. For Stephen Karam, he uses these spaces to craft such a haunting and real story, and it’s some of the best visual storytelling I have ever seen. Whether it be the imperfections in the apartment or the family, you can see and feel the turmoil in such a catastrophically brilliant way. This film also might be the reason I never move to New York.
This review is from the Nashville Film Festival A24 will release The Humans in select theaters and day-and-date on Showtime November 24.
Photo courtesy of A24