“Our techniques are risky, but the result is thrilling. Here are people. Here is a movie with people,” explains Patrick Wang, writer and director of the self-produced In the Family. It sounds simple enough: isn’t that what a movie is, showing people doing things? Well, not exactly. After watching In the Family, you realize the extent to which, incredibly, most of the time, that logic isn’t true. Even in the best films, we agree to a version of human behavior that is close to the real thing, but that really operates in its own closed off world, with its own rote set of symbols and gestures. But In the Family feels anchored firmly in the gestures and rhythms of reality, and watching it is a true fly-on-the-wall experience.
Some of the risky techniques Wang refers to include a complete lack of soundtrack and very long takes with a stationary camera that is sometimes positioned in the far corner of the room or behind someone’s head. But the film’s real risk is its patience to let the actors develop into real people in front of the camera, trusting that we, the audience, will be attentive and intuitive toward what we are presented. Basically, a trust that we will be people too. The plot is simple and straightforward, and while the film clocks in at just under three hours, surprisingly, none of it feels extraneous.
So, what actually happens? At the film’s start, we’re brought into the home of Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), Joey Williams (Patrick Wang), and their son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak). It’s a good place to be. The small family goes about their routines with a relaxed, easy rhythm. This is a household where there’s not just love, but joy. But when Cody is suddenly killed in a car accident, that miniature world is destroyed. Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), Chip’s legal guardian as stipulated in an old will, essentially kidnaps him, calling the police on Joey when he comes to pick the child up from what was supposed to be a sleepover. Eileen even puts a restraining order on Joey, who despairs as every lawyer he meets tell him he has no chance in a custody case. Finally, a retired lawyer takes the case, telling him, “just because laws have limits doesn’t mean our lives do.” With saint-like patience, Joey works on a way to get through to Eileen and her husband and get Chip back.
Now feels like a very fitting time for this kind of film, as more than ever before, the country is renegotiating its definitions of marriage and family. Still, In the Family is resolutely apolitical. On child custody, Wang says, “as a topic, it’s significant for the hundreds of thousands of children being raised by same-sex parents in this country. But I think movies die when the topical crowds out the details.” Indeed, there isn’t a single strident note in the film. Wang’s formal approach of slow, careful exposition is successfully mirrored by Joey, the character he himself plays: a methodical craftsman by occupation who humbles himself to quietly plead his case to Eileen and her husband.
When he first loses Chip, an angry Joey sputters, “I’m Chip’s dad. Since when did that need explaining?” But he comes to realize that, for Eileen, that is exactly what needs explaining. At a deposition, Joey apologizes for originally being so hotheaded and expounds on both his love for Chip and his understanding of family. At first, I found myself indignant on Joey’s behalf and amazed at his ability to throw himself at the mercy of his dead partner’s shrew of a sister, but, of course, that’s his only option to get his son back. In its final emotional moment (as in the film as a whole), Wang is telling us about what kind of knowledge of one another we can and cannot take for granted. His and Joey’s philosophy seem to be one and the same: if we want to understand each other, we have to slow down and show each other.
Frequently, “understated” can mean wispy, or it can represent a sort of unacknowledged embarrassment about the real idiosyncrasies of life that passes as a conscious stylistic choice. But once in a while, it can mean fully and purely present. By the end of In the Family, we’re so familiar with the main characters’ habits and surroundings that we know what it’s like to sit in their kitchen, how a familiar space has the power to be alternately comforting, stifling, or even torturous in a time of grief. In the film, Wang has created a tiny universe in full, and I truly hope he plans to show us more in the future.