Here’s a nice surprise: a restrained, authoritative film version of a hit play that was just asking for trouble. “The Humans” marks playwright and screenwriter Stephen Karam’s directorial debut, and is now available on Showtime.

I say “restrained” because it’s so rare in these stage-to-screen circumstances. Whether a theatrical property goes for the throat, the heart, the head or a gut-punch to the stomach, a movie adaptation too often forgets things like camera proximity and genuine performer interaction. Before you know it, the performances start feeling a little off, or else too “on,” and it’s Bigger, Louder and Dumber all around.

Here, happily, Karam made several crucial decisions with his collaborators, notably cinematographer Lol Crawley, to keep everyone in the same force field. Crawley used extra-wide lenses for key scenes early on, establishing a sense of both spaciousness and ominousness. The premise is simplicity itself. It’s Thanksgiving. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, “Lady Bird” and “Booksmart”) and her boyfriend Rich (Steven Yeun of “Minari”) have just moved into a prewar Manhattan Chinatown two-story apartment, still bereft of their belongings since the movers are stuck in Queens.

Brigid’s heartbroken lawyer sister (Amy Schumer, never truer or better) is in from Philadelphia. Their folks, Erik, played by Richard Jenkins, and Deirdre, played by Tony Award winner Jayne Houdyshell, are in from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Erik’s mother (June Squibb) uses a wheelchair and her dementia has taken hold of her life. The apartment isn’t simply not wheelchair accessible; it’s actively wheelchair hostile.

“The Humans” sets the table for a traditional, even conventional family drama, and in many ways that’s what it is, no apologies. The conversational currents, equal parts easy-breathing and awkward, take three forms: the small talk; the blurt-out, passive-aggressive exceptions to the small talk, usually instantly regretted; and the secrets these family members keep to themselves until they must see the light of day, even if the apartment itself lets in very little natural light.

The shadow of Sept. 11 hangs heavily over the gathering. Brigid’s new place isn’t far from where the World Trade Center towers once stood, and while it’s not a big climactic reveal (and better for it), two of the characters in Karam’s six-character drama share a scarily personal connection to that day.

Though descriptions of “The Humans” don’t sound funny in the least, it’s honestly more of a comedy-drama than a straight-up drama. It also provokes in the viewer a creeping suspicion the story’s about to turn into a stealth thriller, the way the camera keeps pushing in on the actors from a considerable, voyeuristic distance and perspective.

On stage, first in Chicago, later on Broadway and all over the place since then, “The Humans” ran about 95 minutes. The movie’s about the same length, minus the credit sequences. Karam isn’t trying anything risky with his approach, but he was right in his instinct — and his actors’ instincts — not to lean into the comedy. It’s often witty, but the small insults and evasions and conversational tactics sound like actual human speech.

Even when the material strains for a metaphysical layer of dread and wonder, each of the six performances reach a gratifying level of honesty. When Jenkins pauses for a perfectly judged three seconds before answering the question of whether he wants ice in his drink; when Houdyshell levels her loving/careless/grateful daughters with an unblinking gaze before passing something at the Thanksgiving table: These moments add up without histrionics, without forcing anything.

This is not a raucous family takedown; nor is Karam’s tale a matter of artificial family conflicts, tidily resolved. “The Humans” gets a lot done in a short amount of time, in a single, two-level setting, plus a few fraught intimations of what’s down the hall or around the corner.

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‘THE HUMANS’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (language and some sexual material)

Running time: 1:48

Where to watch: Now playing in theaters and available on Showtime.

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©2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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