TIFF Review: 'The Humans' Makes Thanksgiving Seem Like a Horror Movie Directed by Stephen Karam

Starring Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, June Squibb
TIFF Review: 'The Humans' Makes Thanksgiving Seem Like a Horror Movie Directed by Stephen Karam
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At a time when the outlook of having a big family get-together doesn't seem safe, we are invited to the Blake family Thanksgiving. Adapted and directed by Stephen Karam from his Tony Award-winning play, The Humans looks at a family in transition. Children moving away, parents getting older, and grandparents suffering from illness — these are things that everyone goes through eventually, and what makes it harder is the ever-changing economy. The film touches on all of these relatable milestones. It's always fun to listen to other people's problems to escape from our own, but what The Humans addresses creeps into our reality like the nightmares that keep us up at night.

Karam's film feels claustrophobic from its very first frame, as we are transported to the apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun). Newly moved in, they welcome Brigid's family to Manhattan for Thanksgiving. Her sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) is a lawyer who's struggling to get over a breakup. Parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are there, too, despite being unhappy that they have to travel so far now to see their kids. Erik seems very uncomfortable in this space.

Brigid's run-down apartment has water leaks, stained ceilings, and hallways so narrow they can barely get their grandmother, "Momo" (June Squibb), through in her wheelchair. Erik stays fixated on every flaw of the apartment, like waiting for something to burst out of the walls, and his experiences on 9/11 make him criticize Brigid for moving to a city so dangerous and haunted by that event. Like many family reunions, it's not relaxing. Things are said that aren't meant, the family starts to break down through tensions that emerge, and secrets are laid out on the table that put into question if this family will break for good.

So much happens in The Humans before the turkey is even served. The film features engaging conversation, funny banter and ample emotion. Lol Crawley's cinematography is a standout, the camera focusing on one character for long stretches while the others respond offscreen. There's also a moment where it plays with its theatre roots by showing both levels of the apartment in one frame. It also feels like a horror film at times, as the bathroom door creaks slowly open by itself, the pipes and trash compactor create jump scare-like sounds, and all the lights burn out, heightening tensions even more.

But in all the dysfunction, being stuck with this cast in that environment would be a treat — a phenomenal group whose skills are on full display. Amy Schumer is a particularly welcome surprise. She gets to dig deeper and show her range as a more dramatic actress. June Squibb is also a standout. Seeing a character with Alzheimer's heightens the fear that hangs heavy over the film, as we all either fear losing ourselves as we get older or fear that happening to someone else.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website.

The Humans is a very human film about the most human of emotions, like shame and fear — but especially love. Life can feel suffocating, and our family can make us feel that way, but the film reminds us to cherish what we have before it's gone. (A24)