‘In the Family:’ most powerful indie drama so far this year
July 2, 2012
While watching In the Family, one cannot help but notice it as a film designed to highlight the screenwriting and acting. The camera lingers for long stretches allowing for a natural dynamic to emerge between the characters. There are no edits to manipulate drama, nor any flashy camera moves. In fact, Patrick Wang, the first-time director, writer and lead actor in the film, seems to practice minimizing cinema’s most dramatic elements to allow the film to honestly evolve. He knows it takes time, and he earns every one of the film’s 169 minutes. Too many bad dramas use editing, hysteric performances and overwrought music to manipulate. In the Family has none of that.
The film chronicles a gay man’s struggle to continue custody of his deceased partner’s biological son, whom they raised together from infancy. Before that part of the drama even begins, Wang reveals his steady hand at directing. Joey Williams (Wang) and Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) go through the motions of preparing for the day with their 6-year-old son Chip Hines (Sebastian Brodziak). An early scene shows Cody and Chip both preparing lunch together, as Joey reads the morning newspaper at the kitchen table. As he chatters away, Chip refers to both men as “Daddy.” As the camera sits in front of them, not tracking, zooming or cutting away, the actors easily and un-self-consciously establish a comfortable relationship.
During these first scenes of domestic life, which add up to about six minutes, the camera cuts away from the action only four times and only to follow the action in other rooms as an ordinary morning seems to unfold at the household. The lighting seems natural throughout the film. Voices are also natural and sometimes indistinguishable. The characters’ lines sometimes overlap but hardly to the level of obviousness of Robert Altman. The only thing truly distinctive about how Joey and Cody talk is their Southern accents, and it portends the difficulties a gay couple might face in the Bible Belt.
Wang has confidence in both his own writing as well as the audience’s imagination. When Joey arrives at the hospital with Chip after receiving news of Cody’s car accident, a nurse tells him he cannot see Cody, despite the fact he is the only one who knows the name of his partner’s current doctor. “Only Family members are allowed to visit at this time,” the nurse says. A younger nurse (Gina Tognoni) later offers Joey a waiver that she might be able to slip into the paperwork, giving him permission to see Cody. Before Joey can sign the papers, the doctor steps into the frame. Wang suddenly offers an angle from outside a window partially covered by security bars, looking down at Joey’s back as he receives bad news. Cars whoosh past, reflected in the window and the actors mouth words that cannot be heard. The nurse takes back the form from Joey. The cars continue to pass by as the nurse walks away and Joey just stands there. Chip appears in the corner and gradually walks over to his father, pulling down on his arm, until Joey finally looks down.
The impact of the scene has potency in its simplicity. Life goes on outside as the life of Joey and Chip turns upside down. They have found themselves alone in metaphorical pit to dig out of. The scene fades to black and, as the screen stays on black, a raw, soulful female voice sings, without any musical accompaniment, “and now you are leaving the valley/The Valley so empty/You are crossing the river now” (the film’s end credits reveal that Wang even co-wrote the lyrics to this song). As the black fades away to a blurry view from the back seat of Joey’s car with Chip at his side, the voice starts humming wordless but mournful. The blurry image looks as if Joey might be driving out of a cemetery, but the sharpening of the picture reveals the pair are driving through the suburbs.
This marks the film’s flashiest moment. But a scene in the kitchen, with no cuts, music or effects then magnifies it. The camera is at the same medium shot position as the scene at the start in the film. Joey sits in the same chair and Chip moves around behind him to serve himself a soda and Joey a beer. Wang knows that the smallest details can carry a lot of weight. A person missing in the picture, as the life continues to unfold, offers much more emotional power than the quiet gestures of those present in the frame.
By allowing the camera to sit still, Wang makes the audience feel like an observer. Shots are often static and shot from medium distances or so far away the audience cannot hear voices. When there are close-ups on Joey, Wang often positions his cameraman shooting over Joey’s shoulder, to focus on other characters’ reactions to his quiet grief. Joey never whines, much less does he breakdown bawling, over his misery, not even when Cody’s family claims sole custody of Chip. The film also has flashbacks that establishes his and Cody’s relationship. These scenes appear in the action with little flair. Joey might be hearing a song, and suddenly there is a cut to another angle in the room and Cody walks in.
Wang also creates vivid characters with just the few sentences that come out of their mouths. Why does Cody’s family want to take over raising Chip? “He looks like us,” the boy’s grandmother (Park Overall) tells Joey over the phone, who has another obstacle against him as a Chinese-American.
Do not mistake the low-key drama of In the Family as un-dynamic. There are points in the film where things seem so hopeless for Joey, it makes one wonder why the film is even continuing. But, instead, it builds up to smart levels of dramatic twists and turns. The film ends with a showdown between Joey and Cody’s sister (Kelly McAndrew) and her husband (Peter Hermann) that feels as restrained as any other bit of drama that occurred earlier in the movie, though weighed down by the baggage of the many scenes that came earlier in the film. It makes for a well-earned but powerful moment drawn out by Wang’s penchant to allow the camera to sit stationary but never lacking in potency thanks to Wang’s ear for honest dialogue and his own soft-spoken and sincere acting.
Wang’s style recalls Mike Leigh’s long takes in his early films, like Naked and Secrets and Lies, but the characters never seem cartoonish and pathetic. These long takes make In the Family easy to follow, as it invites the audience to invest in these characters who seem to carry on with only good intentions, no matter what side they are on. By taking his time, Wang invites the audience to empathize and understand his characters in honest, real and touching ways. Wang does not preach. He does the opposite of what Ang Lee did with Brokeback Mountain, a sentimental, overbearing take on another southern-boy love tale, that only made me feel sorry for the women left strewn in the wake of an affair between two self-involved dudes.
Wang instead puts much more trust in his audience. With his delicate, empathetic take on his characters, he bolsters the humanity of all people, no matter their sexual orientation. In the Family offers a powerful look at family by maintaining restraint. It offers more soul by keeping a reserved tone, without riding a self-righteous agenda. All it needs is an audience patient enough to listen for a bit and ride along with its drama toward a powerful, stirring finale that is well-earned with each passing, quiet minute. With subtlety comes one of the most powerful dramas of the year not-to-be-missed.
In the Family is not rated and runs 169 min. It starts a limited engagement run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It screens on only two date: July 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. If you live outside the area, there are many screenings across the US constantly up-dated on the film’s website.