Should I just dump her down the spiral staircase?
It was interesting to read about playwright Stephen Karam after watching his feature debut The Humans (adapted from his Tony-winning and Pulitzer Prize-finalist play) only to discover he’s a Lebanese-American Maronite. I say this because I could definitely imagine my father’s family projected above the one on-screen despite Karam’s fictional clan being Irish-American Catholics. My grandparents were very religious Maronites and their six children ultimately branched out to run the gamut between being similarly devout, Born Again, agnostic, and non-practicing Christians. There has also always been ample room for the sarcasm, mocking, and behind-the-back judgments being thrown left and right by the Blake family once discomfort, anxiety, and insecurity place everyone on the defensive during their holiday get-together. It shows how universally resonate this material proves.
The scene is Thanksgiving at Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard’s (Steven Yeun) not-quite-moved-in Manhattan apartment in Chinatown. Her recently single, lesbian lawyer sister (Amy Schumer‘s Aimee) is in from Philadelphia and their parents (Richard Jenkins‘ Erik and Jayne Houdyshell‘s Deirdre—the latter reprising her role from Broadway) have made the trek from Scranton with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother Momo (June Squibb). Erik has been the head maintenance man at the private school his daughters attended (the job came with free tuition) and thus cannot stop himself from seeing all the water spots, mold, and other cheap old building trademarks. There’s hardly anywhere to sit, the place is not wheelchair friendly (sorry, Momo), and everyone has a secret they’re either too scared to or completely unaware they’re about to share.
A knee-jerk desire to weigh those secrets against each other by explaining that some are bigger than others is kind of the point here. One character having battled depression isn’t less serious a revelation than another risking to tear the family apart willfully and sinfully. One sister about to lose her job opposite another unable to get hers going are similarly tragic developments despite a father who considers the former losing concrete work more so because he dismisses the other’s pursuit of artistic aspirations a fantasy keeping her untethered to the “real world.” Sometimes these secrets are met with shocked silence. Sometimes with sardonic “I told you so” vibes. And yet nobody is hurt more than the person wearing everything on her sleeve: Deirdre the human punching bag.
Karam expertly measures his sequence of discoveries, gradually moving this sextet from having ample if claustrophobic space while inhabiting two floors to the constrained proximity of a single dining room. The beginning of the film allows a false sense of security as result because everyone believes themselves privy to some semblance of privacy when necessary (Aimee dealing with intestinal issues in the bathroom or Erik zoning out hard enough to yelp whenever he’s frightened back to life by the thumping of an upstairs neighbor). Not only do they tell each other that they can hear everything, but Karam also keeps one eavesdropping family member in the background of his intricately blocked long shots. That person doesn’t always want to listen, but it’s impossible not to anyway.
Early exchanges are generally vague and awkward with everyone milling about. Erik tries to fill space with talk of sports despite no one else following the game (heading to the one window that supplies his phone service is both an excuse to escape the pressure of what he’s come to tell them and to continue drinking his beer to muster the courage). Deirdre constantly lobs not-so-subtle injections of Catholicism into the proceedings like her talk about marriage when it comes to Brigid and Richard living together. And Richard is attempting to keep the peace as a genial outsider who can recognize the escalating tension with each passing minute—especially where it concerns everyone piling onto Deirdre for seemingly no reason beyond their ability to do so.
It’s a slow-burn, dialogue-heavy work that finds an unflinching honesty in its desire to allow the humor that’s inherent to hardship to shine through the drama. I love the moment when Erik is consoling Aimee after the latter breaks down sobbing because the woman she loved is no longer by her side. He’s giving her the usual empty, patronizingly cheerleader-ish pep talk when she tells him to stop lying to her only to beg him to say all those things again once he goes silent. I love Brigid’s embarrassment towards Richard’s uncensored openness, pulling him aside to ask that he stop telling everyone about his weird dreams/nightmares because she knows how closed-off and stoic her family is. Her father barely admitted he’s having nightmares to spark the topic.
We realize why when Erik finally does let the class in on his sleep trouble. They mock him to the point where he mocks himself. That’s what they do—they undercut serious topics with comedy so that they can stab each other with biting truths under the auspice of “jokes.” They refuse to listen to what he’s actually telling them beyond its absurdity because they don’t really have to delve deeper. They live hours away from each other and are beholden to each other’s willingness to provide transparency to learn anything of substance. They linger on past trauma that can’t be swept under the rug (9/11 hit them hard) because they refuse to call what it is they’re experiencing today as trauma at all. They’re “tougher” than that.
Karam shines a bright light on this type of hypocrisy by focusing a lot of what happens around Erik and his reactions to what’s being said. He treats his daughters differently because of what it is they chose as careers and judges their decision-making prowess accordingly. He chides the sisters for poking fun at Deirdre two seconds before flippantly doing the same in a much more damaging way. And he’s the one who is given a personal epiphany via an intensely climactic living nightmare only to discover he’s all alone. Erik talks about family being everything and yet no one in this apartment has done more to break them apart than he has. The girls are like him. They take it and they dish it. Deirdre is different.
I can see why Houdyshell came back as the only returning cast member from the stage show and why Karam asked. She’s brilliant in this role. Everyone is good (including Squibb as a heartbreakingly sad and hilarious background player), but Houdyshell is on another level. The smile barely hiding her pain. The piercing stare when her rage can no longer be held in check. The debilitating sorrow mixed with shame when bullied to the point of tears. It’s a devastating performance that shows the cost of this family’s dysfunction and the beating heart that wills it to stick together despite its cracks. This is just another day for her—for all of them. They laugh, cry, sulk, and reclaim their balance to do it all again on Christmas.
courtesy of A24