September 17, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Humans,” “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” & “The Wheel”


THE HUMANS (A24/Showtime – Nov. 24):  There are typically two strategies for adapting a celebrated play about a small number of people in a limited space to the screen.  One is to “open it up,” adding scenes, characters, or at least locations outside the original set.  The other is to lean into the claustrophobia, providing emphasis and and detail unavailable to the live audience via editing and close-ups.  (Think Amadeus versus Glengarry Glen Ross.)  The playwright Stephen Karam, making his motion picture directing debut with an adaptation of his Tony-award winning play, seems to have been determined to do neither of these.  The Humans still takes place almost entirely in a New York Chinatown apartment where a family meets for a troubled Thanksgiving dinner.  But rather than play up the faces of the excellent cast, he’s chosen to make the setting aggressively “cinematic.”  It’s famously true that NY apartments, hemmed in by other buildings, are often somewhat dim, but the apartment in The Humans is so forebodingly inky that it could easily be the setting for a horror movie.  (Viewers watching the film on Showtime had best have the blackout curtains in their TV rooms tightly shut.)  When one can make out the actors, Karam sometimes keeps the camera for an extended time on a character who isn’t speaking, or with the action framed from the longest possible distance away, as though the audience is observing from a doorway.  I’m spending so much time on the look of The Humans (the very deliberate cinematography is by Lol Crawley, whose other extreme works include The OA and Vox Lux) because it has the unfortunate effect of obscuring what’s still a great, subtle piece of playwriting.  The delicate dynamics between parents Erik and Deirdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell), their daughters Brigid and Aimee (Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer), Brigid’s boyfriend Richard (Steven Yuen) and grandmother Momo (June Squibb) encompasses not just family issues, but the economy, dating, mental and physical health, class and post-9/11 dread.  Karam’s writing expertly widens its focus from banal conflicts and worries to spiritual crisis, and the actors are all piercing, especially Jenkins, Houdyshall (repeating her own Tony-winning role) and a surprisingly subdued Schumer.  But Karam miscalculated the stylization of film as compared to the stage, and the result is an adaptation that seizes focus from its own content.

THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (Amazon – Nov 5):  An eccentric film about an eccentric man.  Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a British artist who found his niche in the late 19th century with his depiction of cats, both through portraiture and comic caricature.  His work was so wildly popular that he’s credited with the British public accepting the idea of cats as housepets.  The first half of Will Sharpe’s film (written with Simon Stephenson) is quite delightful as it details Wain’s rise in a screwball rom-com style, as he chances upon his chosen subject while falling in love with the family governess (Claire Foy) as the only male in a house full of sisters.  Sharpe uses the old-style 1.33:1 aspect ratio and stuffs every frame with odd costumes (by Michael O’Connor) and wacky production design (by Suzie Davies), while Cumberbatch (in an utter reverse from his work in Power Of the Dog) and Foy find an offbeat romantic chemistry and Olivia Colman provides droll narration.  However, Wain’s life shortly turned dark, due to personal tragedy, business errors (he never copyrighted his cat paintings, and his own sales were devastated by pirated versions), and his own increasing madness, as he became obsessed with notions about the otherworldly powers of electricity.  The style Sharpe has established can’t easily deal with this change in tone, especially because while the film’s half covers just a few years of Wain’s life, the second takes place over decades and is by definition much more sketchily drawn.  With all that, Electrical Life doesn’t quite work.  Nevertheless, it’s a distinctive, imaginative try, and portions of it are wildly enjoyable.

THE WHEEL (no distrib):  One of the pleasant surprises of the festival was Steve Pink’s very small drama, written by Trent Atkinson.  The set-up is simple:  a couple that may be reaching the end of an 8-year marriage, Albee (Amber Midthunder) and Walker (Taylor Gray), come to a B&B for a final try at saving their relationship.  The B&B is run by another couple, Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee), who are chronologically older but at a much earlier stage of romance, planning for their own upcoming wedding.  Over the course of the weekend, the couples interact with each other and what each of them experiences affects their own relationships.  Pink and Atkinson don’t overplay their hand:  The Wheel is only 83 minutes, and each scene makes its points and moves on with precision.  To an extent, the plot machinations are traditional, as a passing reference to something in the past will become the subject of a revelation later on, and characters end up in positions that reverse where they were before.  Even where the material isn’t entirely fresh, though, it’s handled with honesty, and the dialogue is sharp and lively.  There’s an extra boost from the fact that these are fairly fresh faces.  Midthunder, who’s done strong supporting work in shows like Legion and Roswell, New Mexico, is impressive as the catalyst of the drama, by turns furious, desperate, downright mean and vulnerable.  Gray is convincingly at a loss as he struggles to deal with his situation, and Lind and Lee have a more delicate dynamic as they find themselves caught up in their guests’ tornado.  The Wheel is exactly the kind of modest film that should benefit from film festival exposure, a work that more than meets its modest goals.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."