An illuminating comparison can be made between new film The Humans and recent drama The Father. Like the Oscar-winning film from director Florian Zeller, The Humans is based on a celebrated stage work, and its screen adaptation is written and directed by the original playwright. Deferring to a writer is hardly the prevailing instinct in the movie biz, and it would be understandable if the opportunity to shepherd one’s own words to a different medium would inspire an overt fidelity to the foundational piece. Instead, Stephen Karam, as Zeller did, takes the assignment as a mandate to render his story in a way that eagerly exploits cinematic techniques and tools. The Humans might be faithful to the story and the language of its stage iteration, but it aggressively employs art direction, visual framing, sound design, and other filmmaking elements to underscore themes and emotional striking points. Zeller does the same in his film, with restraint and simmering brilliance. Karam flops in the opposite direction: His touch grows so heavy that it threatens to submerge the delicate emotional insights of the story.
The Humans takes place at a modest Thanksgiving dinner in a rundown Chinatown apartment. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), her boyfriend (Steven Yeun) by her side, is playing host to her family: her tippling, distracted father, Erik (Richard Jenkins); her stealthily overbearing mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, a Tony winner in the same role on stage); her ailing sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer); and her largely non-communicative, dementia-beset grandmother, known as Momo (June Squibb). Karam’s writing captures the dynamics of a fraught, yet fairly mundane, snarl of familial dynamics. The conflicts emerge gradually, and the histories that drive those conflicts are shared with similar subtlety. The actors prosper within these parameters, crafting performances made brittle by realism. Karam tries for voyeuristic attention by regularly setting the camera at a distance, taking in conversations from adjoining rooms or down hallways. It’s the acting that actually imbues a documentary-like honesty.
Karam inadvertently (I assume) does his level best to knock the humanity out of the film. Through his lens, The Humans threatens to become little more than an accumulation of details: paint set to festering by water damages, profane graffiti, popping light bulbs. The apartment that’s the main set — as well as the rest of the building, glimpsed occasionally — has been hollowed out and rubbed raw, a metaphor for the walking wounded that edge uneasily through its spaces. It’s too much, though, a distraction from the drama rather than an enhancement of it. The artifice asserts itself so completely that scenes might as well have been extended at either end to include Karam’s cries of “Action!” and “Cut!” The source material is strong enough to withstand the meddling, if just barely. Karam, it seems, is as prone to self-sabotage as the characters he created.