If you’ve heard of Patrick Wang’s “In the Family,” it was most likely the same way I did – through Paul Brunick’s review in The New York Times when the drama opened in the city for a brief run in November. Since then, it picked up a Spirit Award nomination for Best First Feature and a glowing review from Roger Ebert, but it’s relative obscurity even amongst indie film circles remains a headscratcher when it’s so clearly one of the most ambitious indie productions of recent memory.
You might think that would be a reference to the film’s nearly three-hour running time, a quality that likely prevented it from becoming a sensation on the festival circuit where it was screened only by the Hawaii and San Diego Asian Film Festivals. However, the raw power of “In the Family” is actually in what restraint it shows in telling the tale of a custody battle between Joey (Wang), a widowed man who loses his partner Cody (Trevor St. John) in a car accident, and Cody’s family, led by his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) who was designated in her brother’s will as the guardian for Joey and Cody’s son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak).
With barely any score to tell an audience how to feel or even the expressions of its actors at many points to do the heavy lifting, “In the Family” uses its leisurely pace to let life sink in as well as the grief that sets in once he learns of Cody’s accident. The couple’s life together before Cody meets his fate emerges as the film’s central mystery since the film is too demure to descend into standard courtroom theatrics, but that isn’t to say it isn’t dramatically vibrant. The flashbacks of their relationship underline the unusual bonds between Joey and his in-laws, a family that’s accepting of the couple’s relationship until they unexpectedly find the law on their favor.
Such a slender story is ripe for overwrought tearjerking, but as a director and an actor, Wang literally never forces the issue, allowing the film to take its natural course — at times, perhaps maddeningly so. Initially, it’s jarring to see in one of the film’s first scenes a static shot of Joey, Cody and Chip during their morning routine, the camera never moving as the actors enter and leave the frame, which could be mistaken for the limitations of a small crew, or the seemingly interminable amount of time other scenes take to detail the mundane aspects of Joey’s life, particularly in his work as a contractor.
Yet the film reveals itself to be confident in every one of its choices, establishing its own terms in how an audience familiarizes themselves within its world with startling naturalism, and it grows to be beautiful in form and function as it comes together in remarkably graceful way, a true feat given that it takes on matters of race, sexual identity and the construction of family. That it does so through a distinctly human lens rather than a polemic one makes it all the more impressive and having the mellifluous Brian Murray join the film as a retired attorney who may be the only person in Tennessee willing to help Joey with his case certainly makes it go down easier. Then again, “In the Family” is an enveloping experience well before Murray’s introduction, a film about the acceptance of an outsider that hopefully will be replicated in real life as more audiences are able to discover Wang’s accomplished debut.
“In the Family” is now open at the Monica 4-Plex in Los Angeles, the Wedwards Westpark 8 in Irvine, the Regal Downtown West 8 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Regal Park Terrace Stadium 8 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It will rollout across in the country in coming weeks. A full list of theaters can be found here.