To get a big message across in a film, it helps to wrap it up in a digestible package. At nearly three hours long, Patrick Wang’s domestic drama In the Family may not seem like most people’s idea of an accessible movie. Nevertheless, it more than manages to soften its somewhat polarizing social message by surrounding itself with old-fashioned, conservative American trappings. Wang never loses sight of the point he wants to make nor obscures it with flights of cinematic esoterica but he also steers well clear of making his film about policy, deciding instead to focus on the people whom policy affects and who can indeed effect change in policy.
In the Family’s lead is Joey (played by the director). Joey is a freelance contractor. He lives with his partner Cody (Trevor St. John), a schoolteacher, and their boy, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Chip is Cody’s biological son with his late wife, who died when the child was very young. Cody and Joey have raised the boy together. They both consider him their son and he considers both of them his fathers. So, when Cody dies suddenly in a car accident, Joey naturally assumes it will fall to him to continue raising Chip. Unfortunately, Cody’s last will, created many years previous, leaves everything to his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew). The bulk of the movie deals with Joey’s attempts to understand how his life has been so upended and then his attempts to put it back the way it should be.
That may sound like a depressing slog (especially when again considering the film’s length) but it miraculously isn’t. Wang gets the credit for that, not only as director but as writer and star as well. He fills Joey with so much goodness, warmth and humor in a realistic – and realistically Southern – way that the notion of spending more time with him is a welcome one. Wang is not alone in onscreen competence. Almost every character is well-realized in both direction and performance, especially Banes, as talented a child actor as has been seen in years. Still, the weight of the film rests on Wang’s Joey. He’s more than capable.
Joey’s (and Cody’s) only sin was a lack of preparation; a reactive and not pro-active approach to life. Wang illustrates the calcifying of his character’s priorities in a subtle but intriguing way. Early on, the camera seems to address each scene almost obliquely. Most scenes play out in a single, static shot of predetermined boundaries. When the action naturally falls outside of those borders or when a character comes to be facing the wrong direction, the frame is helpless to address it. Yet as the story progresses, Wang’s compositions and cuts evolve, growing more recognizable and conventional but also more purposeful.
By the time we arrive at the climax, In the Family has gone from a unique spin on the legal drama to a true member of the genre that remains nonetheless singular. After all this time watching Joey fight against the antiquated strictures of family law and fight for his rights as a gay American, the film at last reveals itself in the final scenes. Its message may be about the place of homosexuals in our society but its theme – the much more important element – is a thrillingly simple one of parenthood.
Three hours may seem like a lot for such a straightforward story. Yet In the Family makes use of every minute, understanding that it takes time to become comfortable enough with the superficial differences in people to see that, underneath, they are the same as you.