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December 5, 2021

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Family bonds sorely tested over Thanksgiving dinner

Laughter and tears. Fun and disappointment. Affection and insults. Anxieties, hostilities, too much food, too much alcohol.

In other words: Thanksgiving.

This year, Thanksgiving stories in the news are about COVID-19, and how families navigate inter-generational mingling. There’s none of that in Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” a film entirely comprised of one Thanksgiving meal based on a play written nearly a decade ago. But another plague hangs over the Blake family, whose table we join for 108 minutes: Economic pain. A struggling middle class. The American dream in tatters.

Karam adapted his own Tony Award-winning work, a play inspired by the 2007-08 financial crisis. In doing so he achieves something quite rare — making an intimate and devastating family drama even more intimate and devastating.

Somehow, the sense of impending doom and the feeling that dinner is heading to a dark denouement is even more tangible on screen, as is the claustrophobia. If the stage version felt uncomfortably confined to one apartment, the movie effect is even more extreme, as the camera draws ever closer, honing in not only on faces but also on hidden corners, even blotches on the ceiling and walls, as if to say, “there’s no escape.”

If it sounds like a horror film, maybe that’s because Karam has said he’s a big fan of the genre. And so, even though the plot ostensibly has nothing to do with horror, the elements are there — mysterious noises, jumpy moments and scary dreams.

It’s set in a rundown apartment in New York City’s Chinatown, where Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) have invited her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), grandmother Momo (June Squibb) and sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) for Thanksgiving. The paint is peeling, the pipes exposed, the plaster bulging and the toilet seat broken. Also, there’s hardly any furniture. But hey, there’s a spiral staircase, and so even though the bottom floor is windowless, the place is a steal.

Not that Brigid’s solidly middle-class, Catholic parents from Scranton, Pennsylvania, recognize this. Erik worries that Brigid is living near ground zero — we will learn of his own 9/11 trauma — and in a flood zone. As for Deirdre, she can’t help but comment on the lack of a view. Brigid protests: “Mom, it’s an interior courtyard!” to which Mom jokes with faux hauteur: “Perhaps we can all take a stroll in the interior courtyard after dinner.”

There is, surely, symbolism in this interior courtyard — not just because it’s a staple of urban dwellings, but because it’s closed off from the outside world, as are the Blakes, for the hours we spend with them.

A six-person cast can be hard to pull off if there’s a weak link. Luckily, there is not. What’s more, the banter among family members feels more than authentic — one feels these people have truly known each other forever. A lovely surprise is the understated, moving performance from Schumer as Aimee, who suffers from ulcerative colitis so severe that she’s lost her chance to be partner at her law firm. Her girlfriend has also left her, as we learn in a heartbreaking phone call she makes during a break from dinner.

Brigid (a hugely appealing Feldstein) is luckier in love; Richard is a loyal, devoted boyfriend, who’s even cooking the holiday meal. But like her sister, Brigid is struggling economically — she’s lost out on multiple grants to launch her music career, and has a mountain of student debt. Brigid is outgoing and pleasant but can be hurtful when pushed — particularly about her mother’s weight.

As for Mom, the terrific Houdyshell has deepened her performance from the stage version — the only holdover from that production — for which she rightly won a Tony. Her Deirdre is outwardly upbeat and resilient, but can register grief and humiliation in an instant. As Erik, Jenkins masterfully balances the stubborn pride of an authoritative patriarch with the encroaching fear that everything is falling apart.

Everyone at the table is suffering from economic instability — Brigid and Aimee because of careers that never took off, Erik and Deirdre because their long-held jobs, his at a private school and hers as an office manager, are threatened for various reasons. Then there is Erik’s elderly mother Momo, who suffers from advanced dementia and lives with her son because full-time care is too expensive.

We’ve left out Richard, the boyfriend, because in five years he stands to inherit family money — earning the scorn of Erik, who also sneers at the money Richard and Brigid spend on both health food and therapy: “If you’re so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?”

Contentious moments like this promise a rougher evening as the hours tick by, but they’re nothing compared to the stinging revelation that comes late in the game.

And yet — it’s a family. Love is tested, but it is, in the end, unconditional.


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