Calgary Underground 2024 Review: HUMANE, The Family That Slays Together Stays Together

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Calgary Underground 2024 Review: HUMANE, The Family That Slays Together Stays Together
Apocalypses in Canadian cinema tend to occur in slow motion, and have a subversive touch of quiet absurdity. The two undisputed classics of the genre are Don McKellar’s Last Night, and Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool. Caitlin Cronenberg aims for that lofty territory with her debut feature film, Humane. 

Set sometime in the near future, in late-stage climate crisis, citizens need solar umbrellas to go outside, and put protective film on the inside of their cars to keep the toxic sun out. Much of the world has collapsed into chaos, but Canada still limps along civilly, due to a government which has implemented a voluntary suicide programs called “Enlistment.” People can sign up to remove themselves from the population for a cash settlement that goes to their children. The goal is 20%.
You can imagine the loopholes, and the unintended consequences, to this kind of government program. So has screenwriter Michael Sparaga. The poor see it as a fiscal advantage to set their children up in a world challenged for them, while the rich, and their large carbon footprint, are protected. Patch up the holes with some soft-spoken (you will recognize the voice) and soothing propaganda, and the sad human comedy can continue for a little while longer. 
In an extended opening tracking shot, set to Trooper’s 'We're Here For A Good Time (Not A Long Time)', we get most of the world building Cronenberg is willing to offer. Blazing sun, water rationing trucks, and the creepily named Department of Citizen Strategy (D.O.C.S.) doing the medical administration, and removing body bags from the homes of the working class. It is concise, cinematic, but alas, only a tease.

Humane then introduces us to the wealthy York family. Tasteful family portraits abound in the home, nestled in a leafy, tony neighbourhood, of successful journalist Charles York (Peter Gallagher) and his Japanese Restauranteur wife Dawn (Uni Park).
Their adult children, on the other hand, are a deeply dysfunctional bunch. There is academic anthropologist-turned-political-pundit Jared (Jay Baruchel) whose oily hypocrisy can be spotted a mile away; Pharmaceutical CEO Rachel (Emily Hampshire), embroiled in several corporate lawsuits over false product promises; struggling stage actress Ashley (Alanna Bale); and former concert pianist, now recovering drug addict, Noah (Sebastian Chacon).  
People in this family, including Charles and Dawn, do not do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or even the wrong thing for the right reasons: they merely do their thing for their reasons. When Charles invites them all over to dinner to to announce he is “Enlisting” with Dawn, they are flabbergasted at the decision. That is not how the ‘the system’ is supposed to work. Obsessed with his own Edward R. Murrow-type legacy, Charles tells them he regrets having children, and he hopes they do better. Ouch. 

Lest this all feel too earnest and political, things pivot into a loud, naughty farce as the plot kicks in with the arrival of Bob, and the disappearance of Dawn.
Enrico Colantoni, who played one of TV’s best fathers on Veronica Mars, completely subverts his cheery image in a scene-stealing performance. As the task leader of D.O.C.S., he and his well-armed team have come to administer the pair of lethal injections, and most importantly, to do the necessary paperwork. 
With Dawn mysteriously gone, and the Enlistment contract specifying two people in the household, he requires another body. Preferably one of Charles's children to complete the contract, but he is not picky. He lets them stew in their own juices, clearly relishing the irony and the inversion of power dynamics. 
While he babysits Rachel’s tween daughter in his tactical van outside the York house, things get ugly, and bloody as the York clan have nobody to throw under the bus but each other. While Cronenberg and Sparaga keep you guessing how all this sibling rivalry will play out, it sometimes comes at the cost of character consistency. While it can be fun to watch the rich eat the rich (a robust genre in itself in the 21st century), much of the heavy lifting is left to the actors, and little to the camera or staging.
This is kind of surprising given Cronenberg’s lengthy and successful career as a portrait photographer. Here she shoots the often bloody mayhem, with a clinically uninterested, if well-lit, shooting style. This makes the time spent in the house (the lion's share of the film), both before and after the violence, feel more inert than dynamic. The talented collection of actors are of course a hoot, but watching jerks be jerks to each other can grow stale after a time. 
Fortunately there is Colantoni’s Bob, who, while a jerk in his own way, has such a weary confidence in his job and a twinkle in his eye. He is the rare bureaucrat that has seen it all, and yet still loves his work. 
Cronenberg succeeds in getting the tone right: If you are going to make a political satire, be savage about it, and naughtily flirt with political correctness to make the audience uncomfortable as they laugh. But the devil is still in the details. Humane is perhaps not quiet, or absurd, enough to join the canon just yet.
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Caitlin CronenbergEmily HampshireEnrico ColantoniHumaneJay BaruchelMichael SparagaPeter GallagherSebastian Chacon

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