The Humans

The family sit down to dinner

The Humans started life as an Off Broadway show, won rave reviews and was soon on Broadway itself, where it won even more, picking up a Tony and a Pulitzer nomination on the way. Not bad for an old school “small” play with a cast of six and a simple, non-shocking premise – a family meets for Thanksgiving, has an evening together and then disperses.

What people picked up on, and it’s also there in this screen transfer, is the subtext of shakily uncertain times, which translates into a kind of individual anxiety in its characters that’s hard to put a finger on.

Jayne Houdyshell is the only one to survive the transition from Off Broadway to on screen and she’s joined by Richard Jenkins as her husband and paterfamilias Erik, Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer as their kids Brigid and Aimee, Steven Yeun as Brigid’s partner Richard and June Squibb as the now-demented but clearly once formidable Momo, stuck in a wheelchair, muttering nonsense but mostly staring into space.

Momo is a metaphor, to some extent, as is the bare New York apartment that Brigid and Richard have just moved into and where they’re now trying to host a family Thanksgiving. This place isn’t quite what it was. The electrics are sparky and light bulbs keep blowing. There are ominous noises from above, below, who knows where. The walls are bubbling with moisture. The pipes leak. What was once a solid brownstone where working class families raised kids and bootstrapped their way out to the burbs is now in a part of the city liable to flooding. When the next hurricane hits, says Erik, it’ll flood again.

Erik feels like life has gone backwards, and in one of the few speeches that get out into the open what’s going on underneath, makes explicit reference to the fact that it was precisely in a place like this that Momo set out on her journey, decades before, to take her family from their working class origins and lift them up into something better. And now Brigid is back there at the bottom. In a sense, Erik surmises, Momo’s work was all for nothing and so he by extension has also failed.

That’s the mood that settles over this evening of slightly enforced jollity, of champagne from plastic cups, a turkey dinner served up on two non-matching formica-topped tables pushed together.

The family standing
In the room where it happens

There is, of course, a “revelation”, as there tends to be with these sort of things, but it’s there, in a way, to put a proper end to something that cannot be ended so simplistically, because the “problem” that The Humans is dealing with is big and systemic, and in post-political times no one really has the conceptual tools, or inclination, to deal with it. Notably, for all their talk, Brigid (uncertain of her future), Richard (uncertain of Brigid), Aimee (dealing with being dumped and suffering with an intestinal disease), Deirdre (worried about the lack of religion in her children’s lives) and Erik (bridling at being in a no-mark job) never talk about politics. Momo never talks at all, except to make noises. And perhaps that’s all the rest of them are doing too.

Stephen Karam’s play also got plaudits because of the easy way it presents family life: loving and bickering, laughing and sighing, with its own little rituals and myths, with Yeun particularly good here as the outsider desperately trying to become an insider, most obviously in his uneasy “we’re just guys hanging out” exchanges with Erik.

It’s a great cast and this is as much a film for lovers of acting as it is one for lovers of a movie with something to say. June Squibb, now 90 years old – before About Schmidt in 2002 she’d been an insider favourite, but it was really 2013’s Nebraska that revealed her potential. And she was already in her 80s then. You don’t get to see much of it here. Crumbs from the table always welcome. Jenkins can do no wrong, Houdyshell is as good, Feldstein and Schumer are surprising because so associated with comedy – there aren’t many laughs here.

Karam does things with the camera to suggest this isn’t just a play – focusing on stuff out the window, the floor, the bubbles in the wallpaper and so on while people are talking to each other – but they’re not that necessary. Crucially, when it matters, and he has to conjure a sudden sense of dread from nowhere, as Erik has a panic attack, he does.

It’s a strange, small, superficially inconsequential film about a lost family, a lost generation, a lost society perhaps. The state of the nation as the nation in a state.

The Humans – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

How to Build a Girl

Rocker Jack Kite and Johanna share a Walkman

How to Build a Girl is the slightly – but not very – fictionalised story of Caitlin Moran, the British writer from the Midlands who published her first novel aged 15, was writing for the music paper Melody Maker aged 16 (gigs by night, home-schooling by day) and had her own column in the Times newspaper aged 18. She’s still writing for them.

In the same way that journalism is not literature, this film is not a masterpiece of considered thought. Exactly as it should be, it’s a slightly chaotic, borderline marvellous yet reasonably forgettable dramedy charting Caitlin’s rise, fall and rise again in classic “had it, lost it, got it back” arc, with Beanie Feldstein playing Johanna, to all intents and purposes the smart wonderchild blundering her way to success.

Feldstein, so good in her breakout, Booksmart, is great casting as the Wolverhampton teenager. She’s a very plausible complex teenager who just wants to be a writer and nothing else. This self-absorbed young woman has a rich fantasy life and a gallery of “heroes” on her bedroom wall (among them Sigmund Freud, Emily Bronte, Karl Marx, Maria von Trapp) who talk to her and offer encouragement. It’s when Johanna improbably gets hired by a music paper after she sends in a critique of the soundtrack to the musical Annie that How to Build a Girl takes off.

What Johanna doesn’t realise is that these journo dudes, all guys, all too cool by half, have got her in as a big joke. She’s there for some ritualistic belittlement, after which she’ll be sent packing back whence she came.

But they hadn’t quite reckoned on Johanna’s enthusiasm, her secret weapon. And the fact that she’s whip smart, and can bang out copy at speed. From here the story is one of Johanna gaining a toehold on London and then losing her way, her head turned by the big city, her growing fame and a romantic crush on big star John Kite (Alfie Allen). She becomes a bitch, in short, before having an epiphany that puts her back on the right track.

Johanna sees her name in print
Johanna sees her name in print

It’s all (eventually) very affirmative and yay, go girl, stuff, but it’s also grounded in an everyday ordinariness that gives it heft. Paddy Considine plays Johanna’s endlessly enthusiastic dad, a guy who swam in the shallows of the music biz in the 1960s and has possibly left part of his mind there. Sarah Solemani plays her caustic mother, another fantastic performance. Neither gets a whole lot of screen time but they’re there enough that we understand where Johanna got her smarts from (mum) and her energy (dad).

This is a film that will have most relevance to UK audiences, who will recognise, for instance, the actors playing the “heroes” on Johanna’s wall – Mel Giedroyc (sister of director Coky), Sue Perkins and Alexei Sayle alongside more internationally known properties like Gemma Arterton (Maria Von Trapp) , Chris O’Dowd and Michael Sheen.

Today the era of the British music press is over. Melody Maker is gone, as is Sounds. Only the New Musical Express still exists, as an online brand rather than as a “rock inkie”. As Johanna arrives at the D&ME (the NME, lightly disguised), in much the same way as Moran arrived at the Melody Maker, the BritPop era is getting underway and the British music press is about to play a key role, high on its own importance (and cocaine) and unaware that this is its last hurrah.

Giedroyc catches the sexism and the slight absurdity of it all, as well as the mad romance of British music papers in their pomp, as well as the vibe of guys who are all desperate to succeed but too cool to let on how hard they’re trying.

It’s Johanna’s on-off relationship with coolness, and what it really means, and her understanding of what it means to be a “girl” in a world like this that the film is really all about.

How to Build a Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021