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August 7, 2013

In the Family

by Franz Patrick


In the Family (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Directorial debuts can be predictable these days. In order to come off confident, first feature filmmakers tend to veer toward exaggeration: big explosions, swaggering shootouts, verbose and quirky dialogue, heavy-handed symbolisms. So it very interesting that writer-director Patrick Wang chooses a path less traveled. “In the Family” is almost three hours long, there is no score, the dialogue is sparse but effective, and there are plenty of long takes designed to simply show lives being lived.

Several weeks after Cody (Trevor St. John) passes away in the hospital after a car accident, his sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), tells Joey (Patrick Wang), Cody’s live-in boyfriend, that the will Cody has left clearly states that all his money and possessions are to be transferred to Eileen’s name. In addition, Cody’s biological son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), is to be placed under his aunt’s custody. However, this will was written in 2002–years before Cody and Joey met–and was never updated. The young boy has grown to love Joey that he is referred to as “Dad.” Though Joey wants Chip back, there is no law that officially considers Joey as a part of Cody’s family.

Almost immediately, it is established that the camera is there to observe unblinkingly. We watch Cody, Joey, and Chip go about their every day at work, in the car, and at home. They are not a family we often see in television sitcoms or mainstream movies where everyone is always jumping around screaming and with a joke to say every other minute. Instead, there are a lot of silence moments when we can feel that they are happy and comfortable simply being around each other’s company.

We see Cody and Joey being parents and parenting. Though they are a same-sex interracial couple, the picture makes a point that what they share is just like so-called traditional relationships. They may look tired at the end of the day but they constantly try to be there for each other. By playing it small, we are given a chance to really absorb what we are seeing. Replace Cody or Joey with a woman and the dynamic of household is unaltered.

The story takes place in Tennessee. The easier route is to show Joey and Cody receiving looks of disapproval when they walk down the street or someone they know confronting them about their homosexual lifestyle and spewing execration. But the screenplay is smarter and more ambitious than that.

While the stench of bigotry can be detected occasionally, like the early scene in the hospital involving a nurse, the big question is whether Cody’s family considers Joey to be a part of them in the first place. How do we determine this? Through what they take away? What they say or not say? There are a few things more painful than a person waking up one day and learning that the people one considers family are now, essentially, strangers–people who wish to take away the one thing one values most.

There is no villain here: only two camps that feel very hurt, angry, and in grief. Though Eileen’s actions may seem cruel, with a bit of effort we can understand that she just wants a piece of Cody, too. In her mind, the will, even though it is dated, is a symbol of her brother’s approval: that he trusts her and loves her so much that she is chosen to act on his behalf. Since Joey is in the way of what she values, naturally, there is conflict.

The film culminates at a deposition. To reveal anything about what is discussed and how would be unfair. While the result lingers in the back of our minds, we are carried away by a well-written script: what and how questions are asked, the reaction of the person being interviewed while on record, what is verbalized and in what manner. It is interested in presenting details and so we look a little closer and hang onto every beat.

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