It sucks when you feel like you’ve watched a different movie than the rest of a film festival crowd. Yesterday, it happened to me. I went to the world premiere screening of The Humans here at the Toronto International Film Festival, not knowing what to expect. Full disclosure: I was meant to have seen it at a preview screening back in New York last week, but TIFF prep kept me from attending. So, here I was, and about halfway through, I realized that everyone was laughing more than I was. They were more engaged, more rapt in attention, and heartier in their applause when the flick ended. For whatever reason, this film didn’t fully work for me, while others have it pegged as an Oscar player.
The Humans has every ingredient that would make for prime awards fare. The acting and the screenplay could still grab some attention, but something about it is off. Maybe it’s just the way this take on familial anxiety and existential dread hit me, but it simply didn’t land. It’s likely my loss, but alas…here I am, regardless.
Adapted from the play of the same name, this film exclusively takes place in an old Manhattan duplex. The pre-war building is home to Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). It’s Thanksgiving and they’re hosting the Blake family, consisting of her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), and grandmother Momo (June Squibb). The apartment is falling apart, much to the consternation of Erik, but that soon becomes the least of their issues.
As tensions rise throughout the day, mysterious things start to go bump in the night which brings things to a boiling point. Family revelations come out, but Erik especially becomes convinced that something perhaps horrific is happening upstairs. Is he on to something? Or, is it all in his head and life in New York City for his daughter is freaking him out?
The cast of The Humans is wonderful, to be sure. Richard Jenkins is as good as ever, justly given a huge role. Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer perfectly mix comedy and drama. Steven Yeun is charming as all hell. Jayne Houdyshell is a revelation. June Squibb doesn’t have much to do, but she’s a welcome presence. They’re what kept me hoping this would turn around, as they created one of the most compelling ensembles of the year so far.
Writer/director Stephen Karam mixes a sharp script with direction that keeps you at arm’s length. It’s almost as if Karam was so enamored with the ability to direct the horror elements that he forgot to keep the focus on his cast. He’s crafted such good dialogue that it’s a real shame, too. The Humans soars when the actors and actresses are allowed to just go to town on Karam’s screenplay. When it tries to be more of a film, it suffers.
The Humans is probably better than I’m making it out to be. Judging by the other critics here at TIFF, I’m on an island almost all alone. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not fully successful. When A24 releases this one, you’ll be able to make up your own mind, but this is just where I stand on the movie…