Film Review: In the Family

Ultimately worthwhile tale of a gay custody battle: important, rewarding viewing, but marred by directorial indulgence and excessive length.

Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) is a happy, normal gay man in Tennessee, raising his six-year-old son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) with his lover, Cody (Trevor St. John, very good and natural), the boy’s biological father. When Cody dies in a car accident, Joey is resigned to being a single parent until Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) and her husband Dave (Peter Hermann) step in and, as per the stipulations of Cody’s outdated will, not only take over Joey’s mortgage but custody of Chip as well. Faced with a restraining order, Joey seeks legal help, which proves unfruitful until retired lawyer Paul Hawks (Brian Murray) steps in.

In the Family
is actor/writer/director Patrick Wang’s first feature and is one helluva brave effort. He had the opportunity to create the first real Asian-American gay hero and manages to accomplish the feat, but at some cost. The heavy price to be paid is his directorial style, which is often self-consciously slow and “natural” in a way all too excruciatingly familiar from John Cassavetes films, of which this reviewer is admittedly not a fan. Wang is also fond of having the screen go entirely black for little eternities, like after Cody’s death, while a whiny country-flavored dirge (co-composed by Wang) wells up. This stretches his film out to an unconscionable 169 minutes during which the viewer’s patience is sorely taxed—watching Joey, for instance, partially obscured at one end of the screen (a recurring, ultimately tiresome framing device) while Chip “adorably” makes breakfast in the background in real time. The production says only 300 shots were used in the entire film, many of them lasting over ten minutes, but Wang blows it during the compelling encounter between Joey and Hawks, moving the camera from face to face, rather than hold it in a medium shot which would have had some real Wyler/Cukor-style performance power.

There are all too many scenes of Chip being lovable, to the indulgent smiles of his parents and a surfeit of incoherent baby talk, and Wang himself plays Joey with a somewhat calculated, aw-shucks ingenuousness which recall Jimmy Stewart at his most bumpkin annoying. Joey is just too good to be believed and, conversely, cannot believe anything bad about anyone else, despite being reared in an orphanage in which he had a reputation for violently defending himself.

This very surprising revelation, given the man’s unrelenting wide-eyed docility, comes during his climactic facedown with his opponents for Chip’s guardianship in a law office, under the guidance of Hawks. Hawks’ appearance in the final third of the film literally saves it, with Murray absolutely splendid, shaking the inertly well-intentioned film to life and bringing every ounce of his veteran’s stage authority and wisdom to the role.

His final counsel of Joey is both perspicacious and a dramatic godsend, but here Wang again overdoes it, making Joey’s undeniably affecting monologue, in which he cites his immigrant/foster child background, parental competence and love for Cody, go on too long. It’s really a shame—had Wang cut about a half-hour from his film, original and as telling and important as its message is, it could have quite easily attained a status close to classic.