Karam gives us breadcrumbs that establish the Blake family, using Richard as a convenient vehicle to deliver exposition, since he’s the prospective new member and an outsider in different ways (he’s Korean-American and seemingly more intellectual and introspective than all of the Blakes save for Brigid). The Blake family hails from Scranton and remains connected to (it appears) a fundamentalist church. Grandma Momo, who is in a wheelchair and suffers from dementia, appears to have been a devout and once-formidable congregational figure. Deidre seems to absorbed many of her mother’s cultural attitudes even though she does a bad job of pretending to be more enlightened: she keeps making remarks about Aimee, a lesbian, that are no less hurtful for passive-aggressive (she also apparently texts Aimee whenever there’s awful news about a lesbian—most recently the daughter of a family friend who killed herself).
Brigid gets grief over having left the family stomping grounds and resettled in New York to go to college. There are lingering feelings of rejection in the way the Blake parents interact with Brigid on what ought be her day to be in charge and play hostess. Both parents ridicule and diminish the apartment, which looks gorgeous and immense to this adoptive New Yorker (though I guess it seems small if you’re from Scranton). Erik jabs at her for having chosen a financially draining private college over a state school, and there’s a subtext of white, middle-class discomfort in some of the interactions between Richard and the Blakes, no matter how hard they try to seem accepting. And it’s pretty clear from the start that Erik, a former Scranton school janitor, is sitting on a shameful secret, and it’s just a matter of time before we learn the particulars.
After the first few minutes, audiences might be forgiven for thinking, “this is a lot like other stories of its type, only slower and with much artier direction.” But give it time and try to lean into the style. “The Humans” feels strikingly different from other movies in this vein, thanks to the way it’s written (elliptically and subtly, dancing around the obvious) and, even more so, the way it’s directed. There are no monsters, ghosts or demons in the film, yet every frame feels haunted thanks to the way that Karam, cinematographer Lol Crawley, and editor Nick Houy unveil and inspect the setting, a pre-World War II, almost lightless “interior courtyard” apartment with hardwood floors and a maddeningly counterintuitive layout. It sometimes feels like “Hereditary” without the supernatural elements and gore. It’s a psychological horror movie about the ordinary miseries and compromises of family. You can feel the tension radiating from all of them, as if they were mortals being watched by ghosts, or (conversely) as if they were ghosts being observed by parapsychologists, blobs of energy whose every tiny shift in feeling registers as a change in color temperature.