“In the Family” is a first feature so meticulously made, quietly heartfelt and carefully modulated that it feels like a revelation — like the arrival of a talent that might really matter. An American Bresson, perhaps.
Except … except that writer/director/star Patrick Wang seems unable to turn it off. “In the Family” runs for nearly three freaking hours, and while audiences might tolerate that excess in a big-screen epic, it’s an intimidating thing in an intimate family drama. Unless you’re O’Neill, and even then it’s iffy.
Still, I saw the film a week ago and it has stuck with me. It establishes its own rhythms and viewpoint, and it's taken up residence in my head. That doesn't happen all that often.
What Wang gives us here is a story about a gay family, and yet I hesitate to call this a “gay” movie because its concerns — and Wang’s obvious artistry — are so universal. Told both in the present and in flashbacks, “In the Family” centers on a child custody battle. As the film begins, a gay couple, Cody (Trevor St. John) and Joey (Wang) are raising their son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Chip is Cody’s biological son by a wife who died in childbirth. Quite unexpectedly, the widower then falls for another man named Joey. And now, as they say, Chip has two daddies.
When Cody dies, however, Joey and Chip’s relationship is threatened. Cody never updated his will to reflect Joey‘s role in his life. Now Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), the executor of his estate, has become Chip’s guardian.
This means, in her mind, that Chip should live with her and her husband.
Most films would make Eileen openly homophobic. Wang, though, likes to go for the gray areas in life. Eileen appears to be torn between her friendship with Joey and the fact that, legally, she’s in charge of Chip. Apparently, the logistics are too much for her. She invites Chip for a Thanksgiving dinner with the grandparents; when Joey comes to pick him up, he finds an empty house. You could consider it a kidnapping except, remember, Eileen is Chip’s legal guardian. She even gets a restraining order to keep Joey from trying to make contact.
This outline makes “In the Family” sound like a gay “Kramer vs. Kramer,” or even one of those made-for-cable social issue movies.
Not really. Wang is too much of a humanist to go for cheap theatrics. And the entire enterprise is elevated by his filmmaking skills. In some ways, “In the Family” is the “Citizen Kane” of domestic issue movies, for it is always employing innovative staging, camera placement, and lighting for subtle dramatic effects.
I don’t want to suggest that Wang’s is in any way a show-offy approach, for every choice he’s made has been in service of the mood he’s attempting to establish. In fact, often a shot or scene is defined by what we don’t see, or by something that is happening just off camera.
Even Wang’s central performance as Joey is amazingly low key. Joey may be Asian-American, but he’s also a Tennessean, and when he speaks — which isn’t all that often — it’s with a slow, self-deprecating good ol’ boy drawl that is utterly disarming. (Is this acting? Is Wang actually a Southerner? Whatever it is, it's entirely convincing.)
The danger is that the film lacks a big-actor performance to draw and keep the audience’s attention. The upside is that it feels absolutely true to life. The movie’s climactic sequence comes, not in a big courtroom showdown, but during a deposition in a nondescript meeting room with six individuals sitting around a table. Wang has shot and edited this usually unremarkable legal proceeding so that it plays in real time (about 30 uninterrupted minutes) and the effect is — for me, anyway — galvanizing … not unlike seeing a terrifically written stage performance.
While I'm at it, let me heap my highest praise on Broadway/TV/film veteran Brian Murray, who plays Joey’s friend and attorney, a retired litigator who advises conciliation. The classically-trained Murray is simply great as a wise old counselor who has learned that sugar attracts more flies than vinegar. Compare his approach to that of Eileen’s attorney (Eugene Brell), an oily specimen whose gay-baiting bombs appall even his client and the court stenographer.
“In the Family” is a hard sell. It doesn't have the sort of hooks devised to get audiences out of the house and down to the theater. But after seeing it, I can’t help wondering if we’re not witnessing the birth of a major new talent.