Gay drama ‘In the Family’ defies cliches with moving, unusual tale
4 Stars out of 5
IN THE FAMILY
Patrick Wang, Sebastian Brodziak, Park Overall. Rated R. 170 mins.
Now playing the AMC Grapevine Mills. Director/star Patrick Wang will be in attendance following the 6:50 pm.
screening on April 28 to conduct a Q&A.
Cody (Trevor St. John) and Joey (Patrick Wang) are an unlikely pair in rural Martin, Tenn.: An interracial couple (Joey is Asian, though both are dyed-in-the-wool Southerners), they’re rearing Cody’s precious 6-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), from a prior marriage. They live openly and comfortably among their friends and family, as idyllic — really, as boring — as most couples are.
Still, it’s not difficult to see the direction the story of In the Family is headed: When Cody is in an accident (we never really learn the nature of it), Joey and Chip face the challenge of putting their lives back together. And this being the South, and the characters being gay … well, the conflict kind of writes itself.
Or does it?
Wang, who wrote, directed and stars as Joey, has crafted a deceptively gorgeous and affecting film, a towering emotional drama that overwhelms you not with a treacly musical underscore or wistful cinematography but with is devotion to the verisimilitude of everyday life. It succeeds precisely because it seems so realistic — you feel every moment as if it is happening to you.
Wang evinces a casual, unrushed, contemplative style as a filmmaker — lots of long, easy shots of people living their lives. And yet, there’s a foreboding to it all; it seems as if there always is when gay folks are involved.
In the Family is profoundly emotional, and captures the horror and frustration of the unfair treatment of gay couples without turning to mawkishness or melodrama. Wang doesn’t short-shrift any of the moments that make up the fine details of a tragedy. He refuses to rush through the things that many filmmakers would tire of easily. The scenes where Joey confronts the hospital staff, trying to find out the status of his partner following the accident, are ones we have seen countless times before, but you’ve probably never seen it presented with such plainspoken, realistic forthrightness. (It’s even better than that great one in Terms of Endearment.)
The centerpiece of the story is Joey’s custody fight for Chip, although unlike in many films like this, for most of the running time he isn’t treated like an object, but as a human being, on the same footing as the adults. We don’t have to imagine that Joey loves Chip like his own flesh; we see it. In that way,
In the Family harkens more to Kramer vs. Kramer with its extended, silent ballet of father and son getting used to the quiet of only them, than it does to an overblown soap opera like the Madonna-Rupert Everett fiasco The Next Best Thing.
Indeed, perhaps what’s most beautiful and heartbreaking is how surreptitiously and seemingly “normal” all the incidents conspire against Joey; a tense conversation here, a pained look there, a phone call there. The resentment and homophobia (and, probably, racism) aren’t overt, but underscore the prejudice Joey endures.
Still, In the Family’s greatest flaw is also its chief asset: It’s slow, considered storytelling. You can see places where the point has been made; not every scene needs to run on as long as they do.
But Wang presents his scenes in the full flower of their significance in our lives with purpose: The long wait in the hospital room, the slow drive home from the funeral, the seemingly endless moment when you first learn your partner has died. If you take out the dull parts from our lives, you’re not left with much. Those are the times we teach our kids patience, or share a meal with our partners, or engage in the pillow talk that differentiates strangers from lovers.
The performances, from a largely unknown cast, are case studies in underplaying. Wang — with an agreeable, placid Tennessee twang that identifies him as “one of y’all” even while his complexion and sexual orientation say the opposite — speaks as much between his lines (with a glance, or a choked-back “hello”) as anyone could. As he convinced Chip to visit Cody in the hospital, you believe their intimacy so thoroughly, you forget you are watching a film.
A lot of the responsibility for the beauty of their relationship rests on the small, hair-brushed shoulders of Brodziak. He’s natural without being cutesy. Everyone else — from Joey’s employer to his in-laws to an especially detestable lawyer — is perfect.
The craftsmanship is equally fine, though, like the acting, not flashy. Revel in the fluid, simple camerawork — long takes with only subtle movement that never suggest something static or awkward.
There’s a tendency to pigeonhole In the Family as “a gay film” or “an Asian film” or “a gay Asian film.” I truly don’t see that. It’s simply the most humane and heartfelt drama I’ve seen in ages.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 27, 2012.