On watching The Humans with my humans.
(A movie by Stephen Karam that centres on the gathering of what some have called a ‘dysfunctional family’ was likely to contain elements that would hit home.)
Six members of a multi-generational family gather together in Chinatown, Manhattan, at the newly acquired duplex of the youngest (adult) daughter, Brigid and her boyfriend, Richard. The building is old and creaks at the bones. It’s dark and dank and echoes. The only adornment that brightens its grubby, spartan interior is a string of fairy lights – a garland of optimism suspended over a flimsy table that houses Thanksgiving dinner in the basement. The lights twinkle throughout – through emotional bombshells; tears borne of years of living; and dialogue that makes you wince and relieved you’re not there – while other bulbs extinguish like clockwork.
Characters are frequently framed by doorways, and clear views of faces are rare – close-ups are fleeting or drowned in shadows, and at one point, the mother’s (Deidre’s) despair is articulated via a fractured reflection. As for the nuanced content, one critic sums it up like this: “Banal pleasantries rub shoulders with more pointed exchanges, secrets spill with almost comical regularity.”
It’s not a spoiler to say that dementia has taken hold of the grandmother’s mind and the whole family shares the struggle. The father, Erik, says: “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” At dinner, Deidre reads aloud a letter that the grandmother wrote to her granddaughters, while she still could.
Scenes are stolen by the tired, rambling apartment and its blistering paintwork, leak-stained pipes, and an ill-fitting square of mirrored mosaic tiling, all to a soundtrack of clanking, hollowed-out noises and the upstairs neighbour’s sudden crashing thuds.
Underlying all this is an unknown menace that haunts Erik. A presence that’s close but remains out of reach. He thinks he sees someone outside, but the smeared filth on the window obscures his vision.
The viewer is an outsider, an eavesdropper (an effect enhanced by the camerawork – we feel like we are hiding around corners, forced to focus on an ancient toilet while we listen to hushed, taut conversations). It is as if the project might be some kind of empirical research (does the film’s title confirm this?). Is there an anthropologist in the background taking notes?
If they are, they might be exploring the essence of humour. And if you happen to be watching with your own imperfect lot, you wonder if the joke is on you.
As we settle in front of the film in our own home, my daughter amplifies the creative camerawork by angling the screen to suit her best. Angles upon angles. She shifts seats/glasses/tables to suit her even better. It is a rare honour for her to choose to watch a movie with my husband and me. So we say nothing. But she knows that we are trying to say nothing.
“What’s wrong with your neck, Mum? Why are you stretching it and leaning your body across in that weird way?”
I pour myself a glass of wine.
As the film meanders into its plot, my daughter continues her commentary: see how cute our cats are; could she please have some cider; is there any chocolate. It seems subversive to respond with monosyllables, but we do so anyway and take sly sips of our drinks.
Meanwhile, tensions on screen are spun like a web. The family interactions are normal yet complicated; things are said and not said; traps are set without anyone realising – or if they are, they are ignored or glossed over. A general sense of unease pervades.
My son joins us, and he and his sister kick things off with an argument over the cushions. My husband and I watch the movie, try not to watch our kids and then the cats lose their cuteness and start scrapping, too.
To be fair to my daughter, the narrative moves at a pace that allows for the discussions it provokes. At one point in the film, Deidre sits at the table alone and sobs, overwhelmed by life. My husband and I try to explain this to the kids, but they don’t get it. On that, at least, they agree.
On screen, Brigid and her sister, Aimee, clear the table and make comments about how the men do nothing. Cue a lively debate about the gender divide in our own household before we zero in on the new boyfriend’s disclosure that he has suffered from depression. Erik replies: “In our own family we don’t have that kind of depression.” Aimee says: “No, we just have this stoic sadness.”
And my kids fling insults again: over a box of After Eights; the length of my daughter’s legs; they even get territorial over stroking one of the cats. I can’t help it, I say: “Will you just stop it?”
So my husband distracts them with some hand shadow play on the ceiling. Which makes me feel tired.
I pour myself another glass of wine. In the movie, Erik accepts another beer.
Sometimes, hope is hard to find (the film is literally quite dark). When Erik delivers a Thanksgiving speech that’s loving but desolate (“…this is what matters, right here. Because everything anyone’s got, no matter who you are, everything you have goes.“), the moment is saved by the black-humoured reaction of his family. For who can deal with no hope at all.
The next time my kids quibble, it is an instinctive lashing-out of nothingness. I think of the ill-fitting mirrored mosic tiling we saw on the screen. “This film is art.” I laugh and cry. “We are humans watching Humans … who is watching us?”
“We are art!” the kids scoff.
And then The Humans ends. We all sit still and no one talks. It’s brilliant.