Would You Kill Yourself to Save the Earth? Caitlin Cronenberg Turns the Climate Crisis Into a Bloody Family Drama in ‘Humane’

Caitlin Cronenberg’s directorial debut “Humane,” which opens in select theaters Friday, tackles a decidedly heavy topic: the climate crisis. Yet the film always has an ironic levity to it, something she assigns to human nature.

“In a crisis, someone is always making a joke,” Cronenberg says. “Someone is always being light and funny and trying to get the mood to match the way that they feel, just because that’s their response to fear.”

That fear bubbles and builds in the pressure cooker of “Humane,” which boasts a deliciously pulpy setup. In the near future, a climate disaster will force 20% of people to enroll in the government’s new euthanasia program to sustain resources. But when a wealthy patriarch (Peter Gallagher) gathers his children (including Jay Baruchel and Emily Hampshire) at his mansion to tell them he’s signed up for it with his wife, she disappears and the government comes knocking, still demanding two bodies.

Cronenberg, working from a script by Michael Sparaga, says it was compelling to play with a dynamic where the people usually least impacted by the world around them are suddenly directly affected.

“This family believes that, even with the legitimate crisis in the world of ‘Humane,’ that it doesn’t apply to them,” she says. “I think that’s universal in the places that I have experience with. ‘I can just continue on the way that I’ve been continuing and it’ll be fine.’ That’s why this situation in the movie is so satisfying, because what happens when it flips and the people who think it can’t affect them are suddenly the ones who are being affected?”

Baruchel agrees that the idea of being placed in the line of fire is a sobering reflection on issues like climate change.

“I think a big mistake that a lot of us make is thinking that stuff that happens elsewhere can’t happen here,” he says. “That we’re immune to things, you know. These are human issues that we face with our inability to respond correctly to scary shit.”

Although “Humane” is Cronenberg’s first feature as a director, she’s no stranger to the film industry, having worked as a still photographer on dozens of projects — including movies directed by her father and brother, the filmmakers David and Brandon Cronenberg.

Hampshire says that, although she was friends with Cronenberg before “Humane,” she was impressed by her leadership on set.

“We were so grateful that she was actually fucking great, and everything you want in a director in terms of confidence, but not an overconfidence in trying to prove to know everything that they maybe don’t yet know,” she says. “And the trust in the actors — I was super impressed.”

That flexibility allowed the team to film the majority of the feature in what was dubbed Ravenscliffe castle, a massive home in Hamilton, Ontario, instead of a set, due to the film’s low budget and quick shooting schedule. Despite the squeaky floors and the inability to knock down walls to make room for cameras, the location added a unique warmth to the production that provided an interesting juxtaposition to the dark concept.

“You feel the energy of this old house,” Cronenberg says. “You feel like, ‘I know my way around, I know the ins and outs. Maybe this is our childhood home.’ I still have dreams about the house I grew up in constantly, and I think about all the little places I hid. I think spending a lot of time in a location makes you feel more at home there. In one scene, [Hampshire’s character] Rachel takes her shoes off the second she comes in the door because that’s the house she grew up in. Of course she’s going to do that. That makes the house feel real.”

These subtle moments of character-building helped to ground the complex, shifty narrative.

“Even though these are kind of despicable characters, you see true sadness and heartbreak,” Cronenberg says. “There are moments as you’re shooting it where you don’t realize how funny it was until I watched it back. it’s incredible what the actors have achieved in terms of range, while still feeling like completely cohesive characters.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.