Review: “In the Family”

Patrick Wang and Trevor St. John star in "In the Family."“In the Family,” the debut feature of writer/director/actor Patrick Wang, pulls off the elegant task of being a film that is political, but not politically charged. This small, but vital distinction–the difference between a work that enlightens and a work that lectures–is the staple of the movie’s success. Too many filmmakers, especially first-timers, are so passionate about their hot-button material that they overload it to hammer home their thesis. But not Wang, who puts his characters first, respecting that the audience can apply the story to the issues all by themselves.

Most popular works about the changing family structures of the 21st Century, from “Modern Family” to “Glee,” fail to be truly progressive in that they constantly try to prove that new-age families can be just as funny and entertaining as nuclear ones. When they do celebrate the differences, the focus tends to be on outwardly preaching tolerance rather than observing social truths. (Truths are, of course, a far more compelling means to long-lasting tolerance.) Thus, the unadorned realism with which “In the Family” tells the story of a gay couple raising their son in Martin, Tenn. is a refreshing wonder.

Tragedy strikes early on in this three-hour opus, when Cody (Trevor St. John) is killed in a car accident, leaving partner Joey (Wang) and son Chip (Sebastian Banes) behind. The viewer knows that the consequences will be messy, because the couple hadn’t even signed forms to allow one another hospital visitation rights, meaning any legal evidence of their partnership is unlikely. Sure enough, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) reveals that she is the executor of his will, written years and years ago, and that she will be asserting her right to legal custody of Chip.

“In the Family” could have been made up of one grandiose speech about equality after another–undoubtedly, Joey would have more rights in a state with even the most basic of civil unions–but Wang realizes that we’ve heard those arguments before. The film operates on the basic idea that both sides overly politicize this issue — that the very idea of “equality” is a superficial construct, and that the only true way for viewers to understand the issue is to observe how it impacts human beings.

I wonder if I’ve already gone too far by highlighting the topicality of “In the Family,” for the movie is best celebrated as an intimate observation of one man’s personal journey. As Joey, Wang is one of those natural screen presences, with a comforting Southern drawl and caring eyes. It’s a shame that he felt the need to give the character a traumatic backstory in foster care, designed to conjure up sympathy, when his performance and demeanor earn that sympathy on their own. But for that sole misstep, Wang’s greatest accomplishment–that he never uses Joey as a mouthpiece, instead focusing on the man’s simple desires to earn compassion from his partner’s family and to get his son back–more than compensates.

The film’s style is also accomplished, especially given the shoestring budget it was undoubtedly made on. Wang employs a naturalistic flashback structure throughout, giving the audience bits and pieces of how Cody and Joey came to be, as if Joey is remembering key moments of his past in mourning. These segments act as staccatos, aiding the pacing of the film’s epic runtime. Also of note is Frank Barrerra’s distinctive cinematography, which often covers entire rooms, with the characters in one corner, punctuating the overarching sense that the film is an observation of reality.

There is one instance in which “In the Family” heightens the drama — its finale, which finds the characters in a legal deposition led by a hot-headed attorney. One could argue that this passage betrays the quiet power of the rest of the film, but between Wang’s classy direction (undoubtedly aided by his background in theatre) and the strong performances, I found it an effective outlet for the passion that the viewer has accumulated throughout. Wang clearly never second-guessed his way of ending “In the Family,” nor most other components of the movie — this is the most assured first feature to come along in quite some time.