Notebook: In the Family
Completed in early 2011, Patrick Wang’s In the Family spent a year-and-a-half winding its way through festivals and selected theatrical screenings, regarded highly by the few who saw it. Wang’s debut feature (self-distributed and now self-released on home video) burrows into the lives of its tragedy-rocked characters with such unassuming patience and empathy that only later does one begin to fully digest the audacity of its formal choices and feel the impact of its personal-is-political urgency.
Joey (Wang) and Cody (Trevor St. John) are raising Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), Cody’s son from a previous marriage, in Martin, Tennessee—the kind of sleepy rural hamlet where one can expect a knock on the door and a tuna casserole if something has gone amiss in your life. They live a quiet existence—Joey works as a house contractor for a wealthy family, Cody teaches math at the local high school—until Cody is suddenly killed in a car accident. As Joey and Chip are still coping with the body blow of Cody’s absence, familial nastiness rears its ugly head. Cody’s sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), informs Joey that Chip will come under the custody of her and her husband Dave (Peter Herrman), as stated in Cody’s outdated will. Though she insists she’s simply following Cody’s wishes, expertly timed flashbacks suggest that Joey and Cody’s complicated courtship silently colors the present situation. Eileen and Dave take Chip into their home while Joey seeks legal recourse, with increasingly poor prospects.
Wang (a first-time writer-director with an extensive background in both theater and economics) is dealing with hot-button subject matter, but he cools it down through extended, exquisitely crafted long takes. Commonplace horizontals and verticals—a living-room doorway, a row of elevated kitchen cabinets—provide simple, striking compositions, letting us feel the lived-in domestic spaces that are rocked by Cody and then Chip’s absences. (A five-minute long take of Joey and Chip attempting to perform daily tasks in the kitchen after Cody’s funeral is a master class in subtle staging and pacing.) And while Wang will often position characters into the far corners of the frame or place inanimate objects prominently in the foreground, such conspicuous choices don’t read as calling-card demonstrations of technique. They’re part of how Wang strives to ground his characters within their milieu, situating them in the here and now, even as he invigorates the everyday through his arresting visual sense.
Place is ultimately key to how In the Family works its quiet magic. For a story about gay parenting in the South, the possibilities are rife for pandering to their audience through clichés and stereotypes. With rare exceptions, Wang neatly avoids painting anyone as a cartoon bigot or bleeding-heart ally. All of his characters are sketched with care and nuance—products of a regional culture where tradition-minded conservatism blends in complex ways with an openness to those who fall within the community. (They are brought to life by a sterling cast, peppered with such New York theater veterans as Eisa Davis, Susan Kellermann, and Brian Murray.) Perhaps more impressively, though, is the way in which In the Family exudes warm compassion without losing its sharp ideological thrust. Joey’s continual explanations about why he is fit to care for Chip are among the film’s most tender and beautifully acted moments, but Wang never quite lets you forget that Joey’s tender paeans to his son and deceased partner are predicated on a legal and social system that places the burden of proof on LGBT families (though the times, slowly, are a-changin’). It’s this dual vision that makes In the Family at once so moving and so urgent—a portrait of a family that doubles as a snapshot of a nation.