Producers: Louise Lovegrove and Stephen Karam Director: Stephen Karam Screenplay: Stephen Karam Cast: Richard Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun and June Squibb Distributor: A24 Films
Stephen Karam’s film of his Tony-winning 2016 Broadway play, about a family’s Thanksgiving get-together, is being released on the holiday, but it’s hardly a cheery, festive piece. Though it has moments of humor, most are of the mordant variety, and the mood is overwhelmingly sad; this is a depiction of disintegration rather than celebration, but one that’s subtly written, brilliantly acted and sensitively directed and shot.
The setting is a nearly unfurnished apartment in New York City’s Chinatown; it has two floors, but the bottom one is a basement. Brigid Blake, an aspiring composer who has a bartending job, has just moved into it with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), a grad student aiming to be a social worker, though he will eventually inherit a nice trust fund. They’ve invited her family for dinner. Her father Erik (Richard Jenkins) works as a custodian at a parochial school in Scranton, while his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) has been in an office job for decades and does volunteer work on the side. Staunchly traditional Irish Catholics, they are obviously disappointed that Brigid has fallen away from the church, as also has their other daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer), a lawyer who comes in from Philadelphia. The last member of the group is Erik’s senile mother (June Squibb), affectionately called MoMo, who’s confined to a wheelchair though she occasionally musters the energy to get up and wander away from it.
The situation is obviously ripe for wounds as well as hugs and fond memories, and while some are merely slights and resentments that have festered over the years, others go deep, culminating in a revelation about Erik and Deirdre he’s understandably reluctant to talk about. But before it finally comes out, all the characters reveal anxieties and grudges. Erik is haunted not only by his secret, but by his memory of barely evading death back on 9/11, when he accompanied Aimee to a Manhattan job interview and would have visited the World Trade Center’s observation deck had it been open when he got there; instead he spent the morning in a bar. Deirdre feels resentment over her family’s jokes about her weight, and anger over the fact that recent hires in the office are better paid than she.
Aimee, meanwhile, is suffering a double disappointment. Her girlfriend, of whom Deirdre never approved given her prejudices, is leaving her, and she’s been informed that the firm isn’t recommending her for a partnership because she’s lost work time due to a recurrent intestinal ailment. Brigid’s attempts to get her music recognized have gone nowhere, and her aspirations are belittled by practical Erik, who nastily remarks that she can always go into retail. Richard works hard to be amiable as he putters about the kitchen and effuses about the run-down apartment, but there are moments when it’s clear that Erik and Deirdre harbor some discomfort about their daughter’s choice of a boyfriend, and Erik, who’s obviously concerned with financial problems, takes a few digs at his more moneyed prospects.
Even the apartment adds to the mood of foreboding. The paint is peeling and the ceilings show water stains (Erik is constantly fretting that the place would be liable to flood in a major storm), but that’s to be expected. More ominous is the fact that light bulbs keep burning out and have to be replaced. And then there are noises. The building’s boiler, not far away from the tables Brigid and Richard have set up for dinner, keeps rumbling and groaning. And unnerving bangs and thuds keep coming from the apartment upstairs, supposedly occupied by a Chinese lady who doesn’t speak English. Add to that the clatter that regularly shatters the air as the family drops dishes or pans. The place looks creepy—a mood accentuated by David Gropman’s production design and especially Lol Crawley’s atmospheric cinematography, with its nimble employment of light and shadow. But the aural environment, including the spare, brooding score by Nico Muhly, also echoes the haunted relationships of the people in it.
That’s not to say that the group doesn’t share happy moments. They indulge in a family tradition of banging the table as they announce what they’re thankful for. They are genuinely excited when MoMo, who ordinarily can only stammer gibberish, suddenly comes alive when joining in saying grace—and moved when Erik reads a farewell note she wrote before dementia set in. The strength of Karam’s writing is that while the mixture of pleasantry and bitterness in the dialogue is characteristic of small-ensemble stage dramas, it never seems theatrical in the bad sense, especially when delivered by a cast as adept as this one, which can interrupt others’ lines and make cutting pronouncements with a casualness that defangs them to some extent. The result is a script that, though it’s clearly carefully structured to make specific points about these people while looking ahead to future revelations, feels like conversation that could actually occur in a family like this one.
That’s not to say the film completely avoids staginess—a piece as confined and small-scaled as this could hardly do so. But Karam and Crawley are so deft in choreographing the movement around the apartment and choosing shifting perspectives that their efforts, along with Nick Houy’s supple editing, mitigate any claustrophobic feeling, except of course when they want to create one.
While Karam’s contribution, along with that of his technical team, can’t be minimized in bringing his play to life on the screen, he could hardly have succeeded without his exceptional ensemble cast. Jenkins, one of the most reliable character actors around, brings subtlety and shading to the tortured Erik, and both Feldstein and Schumer are excellent as his troubled daughters; the latter might seem an unlikely choice for Aimee, but she adds her specialty for spiky humor to the mix while also capturing the character’s underlying depression. Yeun has fewer big moments, but handles his more modest ones well, while Squibb takes advantage of the instances when MoMo gabbles or wanders off to leave a lasting impression.
Perhaps the most revelatory turn, though, comes from Houdyshell, who’s had roles in television and film before, but primarily small ones, having worked most prominently on stage. Here, though, she’s a commanding presence even in as strong a cinematic ensemble as this one. It’s little wonder that she was chosen by Karam to repeat on screen the part she originated in New York.
Karam’s work is clearly designed to illustrate how Tolstoy’s dictum about families—particularly unhappy ones—is, as the title indicates, universally pertinent, not least with respect to those in twenty-first century America, like the Blakes. It also follows a tried-and-true dramatic template used repeatedly in small ensemble pieces on stage and screen. But familiarity and predictability can be overcome by skillful execution. Cunningly crafted and deftly realized by an expert crew and a superb cast, the film creates considerable unease while making us feel for characters who are indeed recognizably human.
It will also make even a fairly contentious Thanksgiving dinner pale by comparison.