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The 50 best films of 2021 in the US, No 8: The Humans

·2-min read

A family Thanksgiving goes awry in Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his award-winning play with a standout turn from Amy Schumer

There’s a surprising urgency to Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Tony-winning play The Humans. The set-up – dysfunctional, multigenerational family descends on a Manhattan apartment for Thanksgiving – is seriously familiar, and the execution dangerously stagey.

But Karam’s intimate, increasingly oppressive drama is a marvel, not just of writing (his play was also shortlisted for a Pulitzer) or of acting (a monumental Jayne Houdyshell reprises her Tony-winning role alongside a flawless non-transferred cast) but of overall conception, a rare stage-to-screen journey that feels worth the mileage.

We’re in the new home of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), a relatively new unmarried couple who have just moved in, furniture still waiting to be delivered. They’re welcoming Brigid’s family: her sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), arriving from Philadelphia and her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Houdyshell), along with Erik’s mother, Momo (June Squibb), all driving in from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

There’s the familiar blend of conflicts, resentments and secrets but all have a believably mundane and human quality to them (stoicism over sensationalism) and Karam’s delicate writing tightly grips us even as they unfold quietly. But while his characters might not raise their volume, his sound design picks up the slack, a punishingly loud and intrusive collection of bangs, creaks and thuds that push us to the edge of our seat, where we stay for the majority of the film.

There’s not one false note among his ensemble, who bicker and prod and soothe with such relaxed ease it’s a surprise they haven’t been doing this same performance together twice daily for the last year. Schumer is a particular surprise in her first convincing dramatic performance, her palpable, aching heartbreak surfacing in a recognisably painful call with an ex before a tearful explosion in front of Jenkins, whom we’ve seen in vaguely similar territory before but never quite as wrenchingly.

Related: Steven Yeun: ‘I deeply wanted to connect, so I would break myself to try and conform’

There are references to a culture shift, an age gap, a difference in class and religion but Karam never positions his drama as the one We Need Right Now. It’s of a time and a place but comfortably, quietly, confidently so. There’s something both reassuring and terrifying about it all, the family’s resilient warmth and togetherness providing comfort as the existential horror of what it all amounts to chills us simultaneously. The Humans is going to haunt me and it’s going to haunt you, too.

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