Get past the vaguely Lifetime-ish title: In the Family is better than it sounds. The film is made with great taste, and with something like the mysterious cohesiveness of Mike Leigh’s films. Most of all, it’s made with the kind of assurance and intelligence you can scarcely believe exists in a first-time director.
Director Patrick Wang got into film as a second career and has been an actor on the indie-film circuit. He has the lead role and demonstrates his serious talent as an underplayer and a reactor.
In the Family takes a serene, low-key approach to what might have been deadly Issue of the Week material. Wang’s immaculate compositions match aesthetic choices that double as thrifty decisions.
Example: During a police visit because of a domestic dispute, we witness the cops’ arrival through the beveled-glass panels surrounding a front door. We see the glow of blue and red lights and hear the chatter of a walkie-talkie. The light silhouettes the woman inside the house who has called the police. She has her back turned to us. There’s mystery here. And while it’s a lesser matter, there was certainly less expense in doing it this way than in renting a cop car and a uniformed actor.
The film begins disarmingly with a child puttering into an adult’s bedroom to wake up his parents. Here’s the film’s first surprise: the boy is white, and an Asian man’s sleepy head pokes out of the covers; he’s Joey Williams (Wang). Then the boy’s biological father, Cody (Trevor St. John), leans into the frame from his half of the bed.
The singularities mount. The couple isn’t just mixed-race and gay but also quite Southern. Joey speaks with a molassesy drawl and the imperturbable pleasantness of a small-townsman.
The story unfolds in Martin, Tenn., a college town 120 miles from Memphis. Joey’s job is restoring old buildings and doing a little antique bookbinding on the side. Cody teaches math at the local elementary school. Wang withholds the back story of how these two met until we’ve gotten to know them.
Instead, the director builds the details of the life they share, especially their interactions with their son. The boy is played by the irrepressible but well-directed Sebastian Banes. He is pleasingly boisterous but not a gratuitous scene-stealer. They call him Chip—nicknamed “Chipmunk,” much to his disdain.
Too soon, Joey and Chip are left alone, a progression told through surroundings first and dialogue second. First, a close-up of the chair-legs on the too-shiny linoleum on a hospital floor, then a blackout with a cappella keening on the soundtrack. At last, Chip and Joey arrive home, both dressed in identical black suits.
Earlier, we’ve discerned a slight nip of frost between Joey and Cody’s relatives: the tall, slightly uncomfortable Dave (Peter Hermann) and Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), Cody’s sister. Cody seemingly died intestate, but then Joey learns that a few years before, he had left notes about what he wanted done in the case of his demise.
This is the straight couples’ chance to press for custody of their nephew and to seize Cody’s house. In carrying out what they consider the right thing to do, they do not deliver any speeches about the wrongness of lifestyle choices or the Focus on the Family blather one would expect villains to spout. Dave and Eileen have their reasons and believe that they’re legally right. And anyway, in situations of prejudice, it’s rarely what’s said out loud that matters.
The standoff becomes a legal matter, and Brian Murray steps in, playing Joey’s seemingly placid but obviously formidable lawyer in the custody case. During the deposition, we see what lies beneath Joey’s stillness and learn how much he’s lost in life. It’s the antithesis of soap opera or traditional gay-film-fest fodder.
Certainly, the difficulties Wang had making his movie and placing it in festivals tells enough of how very different In the Family is. This is a humane, gentle film, but it’s got strength. It’s a model of low-budget, between-the-lines filmmaking, avoiding pedestrian conflict while staying compelling during its ambitiously long but never boring length.