By Don Simpson | July 14, 2012
Director: Patrick Wang
Writer: Patrick Wang
Starring: Patrick Wang, Sebastian Brodziak, Trevor St. John, Lisa Altomare, Susan Kellermann, Brian Murray, Conan McCarty, Harriett D. Foy, Zachary Sayle, Georgie DeNoto, Juliette Allen-Angelo, Eisa Davis, Peter Hermann
Cody’s (Trevor St. John) wife died while giving birth to their son, Chip. Soon thereafter, Cody fell in love with Joey (Patrick Wang); for the next five years or so, they raised Chip (Sebastian Banes) together. (“What is it they say? Chip has two daddies.”) From all accounts, they are a very happy family.
But then, tragedy strikes. Chip is six-years-old when Cody dies in a car accident. Joey continues to live in Cody’s home and raise Chip, that is until Cody’s Last Will and Testament is found in a safe deposit box. Cody’s Will — which predates when he met Joey — names his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) as the executor of his estate and parental guardian for Chip.
It takes a while for Eileen to take Cody away from Joey. When she does, Joey consults a lawyer who explains quite frankly that Cody does not have any rights to Chip’s custody; no judge would ever rule in Joey’s favor. This is not because Joey is a homosexual Chinese American who lives in a small Tennessee town. This is not a case of discrimination at all. This is a case of Cody’s Will being outdated and a case of our country’s inhumane justice system. This is also a case of Joey and Chip not having the opportunity to become legally married.
Patrick Wang’s directorial debut (he also wrote and stars), In the Family is a rich, humanist story about the importance of making judgments with one’s heart and soul rather than merely abiding by outdated legal documents. That said, In the Family is not overtly preachy, instead it is a very complex character study of a man who truly misses his son. He craves a stable family.
In the Family is about the meaning of family; but, beneath its surface, it is a very subtle story about cultural identity. We learn that Joey’s parents and sister died when he was young; he was subsequently adopted (and renamed) by foster parents, who died when he was a teenager. In other words, Joey spent most of his life in rural Tennessee separated from other people of Asian descent. (Joey’s non-Asian name and prevalent Tennessean accent alone serve as a testament to his loss of identity.)
Wang shapes In the Family as a legal thriller in which all of the suspense is driven by pure human emotions. Yes, In the Family is a long, emotionally-draining film (it clocks in at 169 minutes) and Wang could have made In the Family a whole lot shorter; but, like the extended version of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the pacing and shot structure forms a unique cinematic language that is quite purposeful. The mise-en-scène creates a very specific perspective, with an intimacy that is intended to solicit emotional responses from the audience. The narrative meanders, sometimes pausing altogether for reflection. Some of the takes are remarkably long; single scenes lasting for five-to-ten times longer than the Hollywood average (the deposition scene alone lasts for at least 30 minutes). Many of the shots consist solely of people sitting (or standing) and talking. In the Family may not abide by Hollywood conventions, and it requires a longer-than-usual time commitment for a film, but it something that should be experienced by everyone.