My local art house's Homebrewed series finished up last night with In the Family (2011, directed by Patrick Wang), a heart-wrenching drama that puts its finger the raw nerve of how our society defines the concept of "family." Like last week's film, this film examines what it is to be gay in the American South, though it never even uses words like "gay" or "homosexual." It doesn't need to. This is not a film about identity, per se, nor is it a polemic. It's a careful observation of the way people live. As such, it lets the viewer draw their own conclusions. This approach is subtle. I didn't even recognize the moral rage I was feeling toward what was happening on screen until halfway through the movie, and by then, it was too intense to dismiss. Behind director Patrick Wang's blank-faced naturalism, there's a sense of the brutality of the world that's bracing.
The story follows Joey Williams, an amiable contractor in Martin, Tennessee, and his family. His partner, Cody, is a schoolteacher. Chip is Cody's son by a previous marriage. Chip, adores his two dads. The feeling is reciprocated. The household the film depicts in the early part of the film is loving and healthy. There's some awkwardness with Joey's in-laws, but it's not openly hostile, either. There's a conditional acceptance. One day, Cody is the victim of a fatal car accident. Joey isn't allowed to see him in the hospital because he's not "family." In the aftermath, Joey struggles as best he can to be a single dad to Chip, but in the course of closing out Cody's affairs, he learns that Cody's sister, Amelia, is the executor of the estate, and the awkwardness between Joey and Amelia impels Amelia to take Chip away from Joey. Joey, for his part, is distraught, and seeks legal redress that isn't forthcoming. He's not "family," he has no custody case. Meanwhile, he continues to work as best he can. His client is one Paul Hawks, a retired attorney. He's a wily old lawyer, and he sees a way around the law that Joey does not. Forget the law, he tells Joey. The law itself isn't important. Only what he wants is important...
This is a long movie, filmed in long, static takes. The object of this is to examine its characters in depth, to really see them without the camera or the editor taking shortcuts. It's a film that's concerned with minute, quotidian details, like the way Chip makes breakfast or the way Joey restores books. A lot of this is funny, because life is funny. Wang has good actors (himself included in the lead) who mostly stand up to this kind of scrutiny. In spite of the structure of the film, it's never difficult to watch. I can get fidgety in movies that dawdle, but this film held my rapt attention. The only time the movie really falters is when Wang breaks discipline and flashes back to the life Joey and Cody had before the accident, including their meeting and eventual romance. Don't get me wrong, this stuff is lovely, but it seems conventional and safe in a film that is mostly unconventional.
In any case, the way the film is framed is important. There are several shots from a vantage behind Joey's head, which has the dual function of putting us in his place and separating him from what's happening on screen. Joey is a classic outsider in the grand outline of what "family" means in this film's particular place and time. He's Asian in a world of Caucasians, he's queer in a world of straights. He's not even sure how he arrived at being in a same sex partnership (the process of which is one of the sweeter pleasures on offer here). Other passages in the movie are silent, often filmed in distant master shots. Wang places his most emotional scenes at this remove: when the doctor informs the family of Cody's death, when the police deliver the restraining order to Joey, etc. He's careful not to manipulate the audience with these scenes. The movie doesn't have the roller coaster emotional peaks of a conventional melodrama. Still other scenes place conflict across barriers: we never see the police intervene when Joey goes to confront Amelia after the Thanksgiving when she takes Chip away, only the obvious pain it causes Amelia herself. This last part is important, because this is a movie that hinges on the fact that there are no bad guys here. Not really. There's only a conception of "family" that no longer fits the facts on the ground and causes good people to do reprehensible things.
The last portion of the film is perhaps the closest it comes to inhabiting a comfortable film genre. It's a courtroom film here, in which Joey has to endure the whips and scorns of Amelia's lawyer as he asserts his own fitness and moral obligation to be not only a father to Chip, but a human being. Not an "other." Wang, playing Joey, rolls over the institutional homophobia incarnated by the lawyer with the power of that humanity.
The arc of this film fooled me, actually. I was convinced that it was going to end badly for everyone, but Wang obviously has more faith in humanity than I probably do. This is a humane optimist's vision of the zeitgeist. He sees the world changing for the better even as we have this discussion, and he places the source of that change on a commonality of experience, on a shared desire to do good and to love and be loved, and to make the best future for those we choose as our family. I want to believe in this, and the way this frames its emotional arc to take advantage of that desire is for me intensely moving.