Rating: 3.5/5In the Family’s longest scene, by far, consists of a deposition in which Joey (Patrick Wang, who also wrote and directed) states his case, passionately and earnestly, for why he should be the legal guardian of young Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), the son of Joey’s lover Cody (Trevor St. John), who passed away following a car accident earlier in the film. That this scene acts as something of a centerpiece for the film, despite appearing near the end, is rather apropos given the way it literally and figuratively embodies Wang’s cinematic approach so effectively. The scene itself consists, no doubt, of a performance—not just Wang’s but also Joey’s—but this is performance as Wang seems to champion, erasing the boundary between the contrived and the natural or the artificial and the real. Joey, prompted first by an adversarial lawyer and then by his own, can only perform here, giving a formal statement that is nonetheless so deeply felt and genuine that it even causes the stenographer to become visibly emotional. This serves as a metaphor for Wang’s approach, highlighting the ways that deep commitment to burrowing into the emotional life of a character and carefully dredging it up can turn the actor’s craft into something that happens to him as much as to us.
As a result, Wang’s entire directorial style is devoted to fostering the proper environment for performances of this type to blossom. Occasionally, Wang traipses over into the land of the overly literal: close-ups of the stenographer or Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), who absconds with Chip and asserts her legal guardianship of him, break up the otherwise uninterrupted focus on Joey as if to say quite matter-of-factly that his speech is getting under their skin. This is indicative of Wang’s light touch as a director, which should not be confused for a lack of control or thoughtfulness. Wang uses every element at his control to carefully house the film’s performances and embed them naturalistically into the film’s world. In this way, Wang’s scenes feel spontaneous, as if being discovered at the same time as they are being created. When Joey and Eileen discuss Cody’s will, created before Cody and Joey’s relationship had fully developed and giving custody of Chip to Eileen, Wang dispenses with cluttered or overly complex shots, placing us upfront, in the middle of an argument forming unexpectedly between two tightly bound individuals.
Wang’s performance throughout is most notable, making him something of a triple threat to watch out for. He has a way of letting slip a trusting but vulnerable smile in even the most awkward social situations, as if unable to process quickly enough the fact that someone is about to harm him. One of the subtextual themes of In the Family is the tension between being “in” or “out” of a social group, most obviously the family. Joey is an outsider, for instance, on many levels. He is an Asian man living in Tennessee, of all places, and his thick and very believable Southern accent only accentuates his curious position as both an insider and outsider simultaneously. He is also gay, but both he and Cody, who is revealed to have never been in a relationship with a man before Joey, never bend to stereotypes, instead recalling the rugged tenderness of Brokeback Mountain. More importantly, though, Joey’s gayness marks him as an outsider in the manner that is most directly relevant to the film: legally. One of the most heartbreaking sequences finds Joey attempting to visit Cody after his accident and being treated like a complete outsider, deprived of visitation rights and given the cold shoulder.
The most effective aspect of Wang’s film is the way it deftly navigates this inside/outside tension from the very first shot of the film to the last. The film begins with a shot of Chip waking up in his bed, the domestic space conveying a sense of warmly protected intimacy. Following this is a shot of Joey and Cody’s bedroom, where they are soon joined by Chip; it’s rare for films to so immediately plunge into private space like this. In these early, rather blissful scenes, Wang often situates his actors and himself off-center, in the corner of the frame. Where many directors use this technique to convey a sense of dread or alienation, it feels peaceful and expansive in Wang’s hands, suggestive of the idyllic bubble in which the family unit of Joey, Cody and Chip live. This bubble is, of course, ruptured, and Wang tracks the subtle ways that Joey is forced to the outside of social configurations. In the Family is not an overtly political film, but it focuses attention on the more organically social aspect of the gay marriage debate, the simple fact that gay and lesbian couples deserves the basic rights that other couples enjoy. Above all, families deserve to be respected no matter how seemingly unorthodox they are.
Thankfully, Wang’s film never strays into the territory of the overtly didactic, nor does it hold up the married couple as some transcendent ideal. Joey and Cody became partners simply because they found each other when they were most responsive to this possibility. A flashback shows their first kiss together, months after Cody’s wife passed away during childbirth. It’s a spontaneous moment, another one of those instances in which Wang and his actors seem to find the shape of a scene in the process. The moment is not ostentatious or virtuosically impressive but instead suggests a commitment to mapping the contours of quotidian reality. This approach can be limiting, though, as it essentially relinquishes many of cinema’s most expressive capacities. A model for Wang might be John Cassavetes, who strived for a similar effect and who succeeded in achieving it most expressively. In the Family lacks the overall vision of Cassavetes, but it suggests a new, interesting corner of American cinema.