With the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down DOMA, it seemed fitting for The Spin’s Spotlight to turn to In the Family – a scrappy but subtle independent film that struggled to find a distributor, was rejected at many festivals, was ultimately released by the filmmaker himself into a smattering of art houses in New York last year where it quietly received some raves (from the late Ebert and the Times) and is now currently available through Netflix.
*SPOILERS AHEAD – this is as much a review of the film as it is a study of the film’s techniques and storytelling style*
Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) is a mild-mannered contractor from a small town in Tennessee. He lives with Cody (Trevor St John), a fine upstanding middle-school math teacher, and together they raise Cody’s six-year old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), as their son. Their life couldn’t be more ordinary, more peaceful: Chip is obsessed with dragons and talks too much, Joey works long hours and always drinks a beer before bed and Cody passionately runs his classroom like clockwork. They hang out with friends and family, who range from wholeheartedly to awkwardly accepting of this happy little family unit. They talk. They laugh. All is well. But then Cody dies in a car crash, and Joey is suddenly thrust into a situation where he has no legal standing to keep his son and the only testament left behind is from just after Chip was born and before Cody got together with Joey where Cody left everything (the house, Chip) to his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew). Suddenly, in a fit of confusion and poor communication, the sister takes Chip, there’s a restraining order, and Joey’s world comes crashing in on him.
Sounds melodramatic, right? Sounds like the perfect story for a filmmaker to get on a soapbox, right? Sounds like someone’s going to take a stand…draw a clear line in the sand, right? WRONG. Great care is taken, and great restraint is shown. Take for instance how calmly Joey handles the scene at the hospital where a by-the-book nurse forbids him to see Cody because his is not legally family and Chip wants to stay with him instead of going in to see his comatose dad with the others. Joey never once flinches at the injustice and instead selflessly focuses only on what is important in that very moment: He needs to convince Chip to go in with the rest of the family to see his dad because Joey (but not Chip) realizes it might be the kid’s last chance to see his dad alive, and he does so in such a way that brings comfort and confidence to his son.
Never once do politics or religion come into the fray. Never once are any of the clichés or stereotypes commonly utilized in the debate used. Never once are the words “gay” or “rights” uttered. Never is marriage defined – people in the film seem to simply love who they love without labels or explanations (there’s no doubt Cody loved his deceased wife Rebecca just as there is no doubt he loves his son or Joey). Because it’s not about that. There is no debate here. This is about being human. This is about good people on all sides struggling to do the right thing in the wake of a tragedy. This is about a place and time (NOW) where the laws and social mores have yet to catch up with the reality of many people’s lives. This is a real situation depicted in an earnest, honest way. And when a kind, wise old lawyer (played with award-caliber classiness by Brian Murray), whose house Joey has been restoring, lends a helping hand and some sage advice, he gives a speech full of lawyer-ease where you think, what the heck is he getting at? But then you realize, the wily old man knows there’s no legal groundwork to stand on…and the only way to make a case is for Joey to tell his story…his whole story (where you come to realize his hardships are not because he’s a gay Asian, but because he’s an orphan, a foster kid who only found his first true family when he was a teenager, and where the lessons he can instill to Chip as a father are grounded in the very American ideals of hard work, family and compassion). Changing laws can come later. But you have to win the hearts and minds first. You have to convince the other side to do the right thing regardless of what the law says because the human story told is just too damn compelling to ignore. If you can do that, then whatever labels have been placed upon people become a moot point.
Let me say this first: from an artistic standpoint, theater-trained Patrick Wang’s directorial debut (he also wrote and tackles the lead role), is unlike anything you’re likely to see in art houses today. Yes, it evokes the subtlety of a great Louise Malle film, and Wang doesn’t shy away from long static takes ala Michael Haneke. But the overall composition and pacing of the film is as if Wang decided to throw out 100 plus years of film history and start again from scratch: How do you tell a story on film…through film? In some ways he’s like late era Dreyer if Dreyer had no money and had to use a hand-held camera…there are scenes where the camera never moves. The film is almost three hours long, and it can go for ten minutes at a time in complete silence. One could easily cry out: Student film! What ineptitude! Where’s the editor? But if you watch closely…if you take it all in at face value, what you realize is that every little moment is crucial to telling the story. Never has more patience been required of the viewer…but patience is what the film is all about. And if you give it your patience, you’ll be in for a surprise and be greatly rewarded.
Now back to the story. Let’s break it down and show how the technique described above tells the story. Although filled with minutiae, for me, there were three critical scenes upon which the rest of the film is built.
First, there is the scene after Cody’s funeral where Joey and Chip arrive home to a quiet house. And it stays quiet. The camera is stationary. Joey sits down at the kitchen table piled high with mail and dirty dishes. Chip pours himself a glass of soda and gets his dad a beer. They sit in silence at the table together. Chip clanks their glasses together…a kind of toast. Not a word is spoken. They are comfortable in their silence and in their relationship together. They start sorting through the mail. They start cleaning up. They start carrying on with the mundane tasks of everyday life. Watching this, you think, man, this is going on forever. But what is the director really showing me? Later that evening the kid puts on a CD and sings to an old Chip Taylor song. It’s not until later flashbacks do we learn the personal history of Cody and Joey…how they met…what happened to Chip’s mother…how their romantic relationship sprung up so unexpectedly from friendship. The clinking of glasses was a consoling ritual started way back when, Chip was named after Chip Taylor (whose melancholy songs weave a tapestry of heartbreak throughout the film) and the kid has learned his manners, his desire to be helpful and his consoling nature from watching his two dads.
Second, there is a scene after Chip has been taken away and Joey forbidden to see him where a conspiring mother, who is friends with both sides, sneaks a recording of Joey telling the back story of the latest dragon of Chip’s obsession to Chip. The mother (played wonderfully by Eisa Davis) eavesdrops with bated breath outside the closed-door while Chip plays the tape and listens to the dragon’s story told by his father who he has not seen for weeks. It’s a fanciful tale where the dragon is trapped in an internal prison of ropes at the bottom of the ocean and forever trying to break free, the kind of tall tale parents tell at bedtime, and I dare you to not think of this dragon the next time you see a big wave crest in the ocean. At the end of the story, Chip, who like most kids his age has scolded both dads over calling him by his baby-era nickname (Chipmunk), replays over and over the beginning of the tape where Joey opens with, “Hey, Chipmunk.” You can see the heartbreak in Eisa Davis’s body language. She wants to go into that room. But she can’t. She just listens. She waits.
Which brings us to the third great scene – the film’s penultimate scene…which is all about listening…all about telling a story. Here we see Joey Williams’ deposition in front of Cody’s sister and her husband and their lawyer and Joey’s lawyer. The opposing side asks questions first; it goes dark places, but Joey hold his own. Then, his lawyer crosses and slowly, but assuredly, we learn more and more about Joey and we watch the looks on the faces of those listening…good people who care, were perhaps misguided or confused or only going by the law, and we finally get to see the real Joey…not just the nice guy…but the troubled kid who overcame his past tragedies thanks to the family that adopted him…the kind friend who helped Cody overcome a tragedy, and who now just wants to help Chip, his son, overcome this tragedy too. The scene seemingly lasts forever in riveting exposition, and it’s quite possibly the most effective cinematic confessional long-take since Harry Dean Stanton tells his story to Natstassja Kinski through the peep show window in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas – a film that shares a bit thematically with In the Family in dealing with what it means to be a family.
Though it tugs at some of the same heartstrings as Kramer vs. Kramer, the film isn’t a legal drama. It’s not about gay rights or who should have legal custody; it’s about human rights and treating people with kindness. It’s a human drama about good people coping with a myriad of problems and trying to leave behind good, honest stories of their time here on earth (just think of the wonderful story Joey tells about his deceased foster parents). It’s about creating loving homes. It’s about overcoming tragedy. You can’t ever really understand another human being if you don’t know their story. At its most humanistic core, In the Family is about storytelling, connecting through that (whether it be tales of dragons or tales of real woe and triumph), and finding from that what it means to be human.
Also, patience is a virtue. All good people will eventually come around.
Yes, the production values are low. The sound design is too scratchy and dialogue too low for the importance placed upon both. There’s nothing special about the scenery, setting or lighting. And yes, there are some scenes that could’ve been trimmed (but not those three I mentioned). But the framing, the camera angles, the pacing, the subtlety, the use of music, the acting…and most importantly the story…make this an unforgettable work of art that heralds the arrival of a true talent in Patrick Wang.
Written by David H. Schleicher
- Kramer vs. Kramer (Benton, 1979)
- Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)
- The Kid with a Bike (The Dardennes, 2011)
- Pariah (Rees, 2011)
- Hit & Miss (Mini-series, 2012, available now on Netflix)
The goal of this recurring feature is to give exposure to, encourage collaboration with, and provide honest critiques for independent artists. The plan is to feature filmmakers, writers, photographers, painters and musicians. As an independent author, I feel it’s important to support and celebrate those working independently to forge their careers in the arts.
If you are an independent artist interested in having your film, book, music or art considered by The Schleicher Spin for a Spotlight feature, please submit a comment.