IN THE FAMILY A-
USA (169 mi) 2011 d: Patrick Wang Official site
Just because laws have limits doesn’t mean our lives do. —Paul Hawks (Brian Murray)
This is ultimately one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year, yet also one of the most understated, where so much of the dramatic impact is built on the accumulation of small details that bear an autobiographical stamp of authenticity. While set in Tennessee, it explores the closeness of a small town Southern community without playing on any of the usual stereotypes or prejudices, showing a more generous side of the South that feels more close-knit. Written, directed, acted and produced by newcomer Patrick Wang, a gay Asian-American who grew up in Texas, the film was initially rejected by as many as 30 major film festivals and distributors, perhaps due to the length, until he was obliged to distribute the film himself in true indie fashion, initially starting in just one theater in Manhattan where it generated excellent reviews before slowly building a wider audience. Still, this is the kind of film likely seen by only twenty or so people in the audience, where the experience is dramatically moving, presenting the material in a more respectful manner than what we have become accustomed to seeing on television or in movie representations, where there are push button issues that often lead to explosive fireworks in the manner of KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), a film that doesn’t really hold up over time, but here it’s more intimate, where much of the carefully observed narrative is quietly ushered in with artfully designed silences that carry the full weight of the material, feeling more like a theatrical experience. This shrewdly written film has a well-designed structure that slowly unleashes its power, much of it told in flashback, where its greatest strength comes from its characters, adding layer upon layer throughout until by the end the audience is fully engaged with everything that’s happening onscreen. Wang’s acting is key, as he’s such a good-natured and level-headed guy, nothing flashy, not without his own faults, but basically the kind of person who defines the word friend, as he’ll be there unhesitatingly and instinctually, providing the calm during the storm, having the good sense not to overreact or take things out of proportion, which is how this subject matter is usually presented.
What starts out as a fairly uneventful and low-key family drama eventually becomes a starkly intense testimonial on the meaning of life itself, not in any grand philosophical terms, but in everyday language that’s impossible to misunderstand, a riveting confessional with profound impact in all of our lives. Using a spare and unpretentious film technique, a no nonsense style where no particular thing stands out, initially the focus is on a wired, energetic 6-year old named Chip (Sebastian Banes), a captivating and endlessly curious kid with two Dads (Cody, Trevor St. John, his biological father and his partner Joey, Patrick Wang), who seems perfectly content with this living arrangement, where he’s smart and obviously thriving in his home life. The routine of their lives is captured in all its simplicity, where the morning cereal ritual becomes so familiar to the audience that we feel like uninvited guests in their kitchen after awhile, where this setting could be just about anywhere, but it just happens to be Martin, Tennessee, where a slight drawl can be detected in the voice inflections. Only after the audience gets comfortable with the “lack” of drama in their lives does the initial drama begin, where out of nowhere, like a clap of thunder on an otherwise perfectly clear day, a life-changing event occurs offscreen where Cody gets in a terrible auto accident, where in a flash we’re transported into Cristi Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005), a bare-bones, near documentary Romanian exposé on the atrocious hospital standards provided to severely ill patients and their families, where Joey is rather unceremoniously left out of the picture as he is not considered immediate family. While the word gay is never heard, the unforgivable actions speak for themselves and are immediately offset by Joey’s own exemplary behavior, as he does a heartfelt job preparing Chip for what to expect seeing his Dad in intensive care. Like Joey, we are denied admittance to Cody’s final hours, as he dies shortly afterwards. With difficulty, Chip and Joey attempt to regain a balance in their lives, both reluctantly and unknowingly becoming the centerpieces of the film.
As Joey is digging through all the paperwork of Cody’s bank accounts and personal statements, he shares what he finds with Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), who shockingly reports that Cody left everything to his sister in a will written years before he met Joey. When Eileen reports her intentions of raising Chip, using the will as her legal grounds, declaring her beliefs that these were Cody’s written intentions, Joey’s world literally changes, as everything he has come to know and rely upon are suddenly in jeopardy. As the emotional bond between Joey and Chip has already been well established, Joey’s fierce insistence not to part with him does not seem unreasonable, so when Eileen literally kidnaps Chip, refusing to return him after a family overnight visit while serving an order of protection to keep Joey away from him, a multitude of harsh thoughts of retribution spring to mind as the audience is challenged to consider what they would do in similar circumstances. Once more, Joey is locked out of the room, reinforced by his discovery that gay partners have no legal grounds, sending him into an emotional tailspin of despair, seen sitting alone in an empty kitchen. While he is visited by various friends showing neighborly concern, some of whom bring food or drink or just sit around and commiserate with him, often shown in long takes, his solitary life is joyless and empty. This void is interrupted by flashbacks of Joey and Cody together, like scenes of when they first met or shared family holidays, including one unforgettable sequence when they first kiss, a near 9-minute uninterrupted shot leading to the moment when Cody impulsively plays Chip Taylor’s song “Little Darts.” Chip Taylor (Jon Voight’s brother, by the way) plays Cody’s father in the film. But nothing is quite as haunting as having a friend secretly call him on a speaker phone so he can hear the sounds of Chip playing, where he sits transfixed, unable to utter a word, paralyzed in thought.
Overheard by an elderly client whose old books he is rebinding, Joey is again speechless to discover this retired elderly lawyer (Brian Murray) will take his case, urging him to forget about the restrictions of the law, which can be so divisive, but consider how to reframe the issue in more humane terms, where he may not obtain a legal victory, but he might negotiate a better arrangement with Cody’s sister. What follows is perhaps the most devastating and beautifully written sequence of the year, a thirty minute deposition scene taking place in real time, a soliloquy of emotional candor, using a generic setting like Conference Room B for such a confessional outpouring, a scene unlike anything else in recent recollection, easily the high point of the film. Earlier in the film we continually see the back of Joey’s head during key dramatic moments, where it's only during the deposition that he actually faces the camera for the first time, literally exposing himself emotionally, removing the politics and the rancor, but explaining in real and heartfelt terms just what Chip and Cody mean to him, often sounding like what we might hear at a eulogy. This might seem oddly unnecessary, having to humbly explain our feelings to precisely those people we supposedly love, but humans are fallible and often forget the deeper underlying meaning, where it helps to be reminded from time to time, much like the original practice of going to church, only removing the religious implications while retaining the moral lessons. While all drama needs conflict, this film removes much of the vitriol associated with gay political issues and instead integrates Joey into our collective understanding of what’s essential about any marriage and family.