Producer/Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Patrick Wang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the Family should be seen as soon as possible by as many people as possible.
But it won’t be. In their infinite wisdom, 30 film festivals rejected the film. No distributor has picked it up. The heart of the film, producer/director/screenwriter/actor Patrick Wang, has had to knock on doors himself to get the film on screens, and so far, the results have been scattershot, with a brief one-week run in New York City in 2011, and some showings around the country as Wang has been able to arrange them. Chicagoans are exceedingly lucky to have Facets’ program director Charles Coleman, a big champion of the film, bring In the Family back for an encore run at Facets every Sunday in September; I was particularly lucky to attend the screening at which Wang appeared for a Q&A session.
What’s wrong with In the Family? Why has it been affixed with the label “No Commercial Potential”? That’s hard to parse out, unless you believe that only sex and violence sell. It certainly can’t be because its main character is a homosexual male—that demographic entered the mainstream of film narrative long ago. Is it the 169-minute running time? Not likely, with butt-numbing films all the rage, particularly among supposedly attention-challenged younger audiences.
My theory is that there are three things going against the film. First, Patrick Wang is a first-time director who came to film from the theatre, and there’s a prejudice these days about theatre people transitioning into film, the reverse of a long-standing prejudice of theatre people against the “fleshpot” that is movie-making. Second, the film, though full to the brim with feeling, is emotionally understated, and Americans have come to expect shrill, explosive performances that are easy to read. Finally, the film is set in a small town in Tennessee, and in Hollywood, urban landscapes in blue states are still considered the only places on earth where anything interesting occurs; films set in red states must, by general agreement, be like The Help (2011), that is, criticize backward, racist attitudes. In the Family’s biggest sin may be to expose our own prejudices by depicting a tolerant Southern town where racist and homophobic reactions are far outnumbered by accepting and loving ones.
Wang, who lives in New York, is originally from Texas, and the film was shot in his DP Frank Barrera’s home town of Yonkers, New York. Yet, In the Family has a strong feeling of a small Southern town. I credit that to shrewd location selection, even shrewder casting, and an intimacy of spirit in the finely crafted screenplay that allows both the fears and generosity of this specific population to play out without being infected with the usual clichés.
Wang plays Joey Williams, a building contractor who has been in a six-year relationship with Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), an elementary school teacher with a six-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Their romance began after Cody’s wife Rebecca (Julia Motyka) died shortly after Chip’s birth, and Joey, who lost his family and then his foster parents, was able to relate to Cody’s grief and comfort him. Their relationship is a surprise to everyone, even them, but Cody’s family accepts Joey into their lives and recognizes how good he is for Cody. Sadly, when Cody dies in a car accident without updating his will to name Joey Chip’s guardian, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) tries to execute the existing will as best she can by taking over Chip’s care. The rest of the movie concerns Joey’s efforts to bring Chip home.
In the Family could have been a tale of high drama, even melodrama, but avoids both by focusing on the people, not the problems. Wang wants us to really know who these people are, and in a film with a fairly large cast, that he manages to give us something human in almost all of his characters is downright amazing. Joey is the central character, with all actions related to how they touch him, but perhaps because his heritage is Chinese, and even moreso because he lived in an orphanage for several years before finding a foster family, Joey has learned emotional reticence. At crucial moments, Wang turns his back to the camera, allowing Joey to grieve in private, as most of us do, and find comfort in concentrating on finite tasks, such as rebinding some antique books a wealthy client of his, Paul Hawks (Brian Murray), has in the library Joey is helping to remodel.
Even more than Joey, Cody is the character who unlocks myriad doors. Like the polar opposite of the title character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), but much more present throughout the film, Cody’s effect on those who knew and loved him forms the glowing heart at the center of In the Family. We see him alive at the beginning of the film, giving Joey a quick kiss before he goes to work, taking his students through a math lesson in a gentle but commanding way, playing with Chip, who mock-scolds his father for calling him “Chipmunk,” being the efficient one to counter Joey’s lack of organization. After his death, Cody is seen in Joey’s mind’s eye—the first time they met when a pregnant Rebecca begs Cody to hire Joey as their contractor, when a drunk and grieving Cody throws up and Joey cleans him up and puts him to bed, when Joey finishes Cody’s home and over a celebration beer and a Chip Taylor CD, Cody impulsively kisses him. Rebecca withheld a flashback of the imperious mistress of Manderley to conceal information that would deaden the suspense. In the Family wants us to know Cody so that we can understand what his life meant and how the legacy of his love helps others find their way back to each other.
It is impossible in the span of one review to touch on the many subtle details that enrich this film, but here are a few. When Joey meets with an attorney (Matthew Boston) recommended by a neighbor (Elaine Bromka) who liked to cook for Cody and Joey and still cooks for Joey, the attorney asks Joey where he’s from. He hears “From right here” in a west Tennessee accent, which unsettles him slightly because of Joey’s Asian features. That’s actually the only place other than when Joey is deposed by an aggressive attorney hired by Eileen that any kind of prejudice rears its head, and even here, it is a fleeting impression. Another effective detail is when Joey’s friend delivers one of a series of wooden blocks Joey made for Chip to teach him about dinosaurs and an audiocassette with a message from Joey. The camera moves slowly from framing the slit in the door on the far right of the screen to a close-up; we can’t really see Chip, but we can hear him rewind and play back the “Hi, Chipmunk” greeting from his dad over and over. Some great lines include Joey telling Cody after he throws up, “This is Tennessee. It happens,” and after the kissing, “I’m not a one beer, two-track guy. You’re going to have to take me out and wine and dine me.”
My favorite small moment occurs when Joey is sitting with his back to us and working on one of Mr. Hawks’ books. Hawks can tell he is missing Chip. He asks Joey if he’s found a lawyer yet, and Joey says they’ve all told him that he has no case. Hawks, a retired attorney, tells him he will take the case pro bono because he believes Joey will actually listen to his advice. He writes down three questions that he wants Joey to think about: What’s important to accomplish, what can’t be messed around with, and what is he willing to give up?
These questions would be a great start for any of us as we enter a negotiation, as Joey does in the climactic scene of In the Family. That he was barred by a restraining order from seeing Chip is the only flaw in this film, as I saw nothing in his or Eileen’s behavior that indicated this was a logical step. Nonetheless, it does offer a supremely satisfying scene in which the emotionally reticent Joey lays bare his heart—I cried all the way through it. In an intense monologue, Joey shows us exactly how humble he is, how grateful he is for the good things in his life, how willing he is to take responsibility for his past, present, and future actions, and how he wants to be welcomed back into the family he had while Cody was alive.
Wang is miraculously good playing a character a bit less intelligent than himself. His interactions with Banes are unaffected and realistically everyday, as are St. John’s. I found St. John’s moments of awkward affection toward Joey touching and believable, and I was grateful that I was allowed to mourn his loss, a hole a lot of films centered on tragedy (Ordinary People, for example) inadequately fill. All of the supporting cast members are terrific, no matter how much or little screen time they have, but special kudos go to Murray, a veteran stage actor, and Park Overall, whose return to view as Cody’s mother I greatly appreciated. One moment when I completely misjudged a character occurred when the nurse (Gina Tognoni) at the hospital Cody was taken to tells Joey that only immediate family can see him. We see in that small detail what the right to marry can mean to many homosexual couples. We also see the nurse come by later with a form Joey can fill out that will give him visitation rights, and completely shatter my assumption that she was a rigid homophobic.
In the Family wants to break down the us vs. them assumptions rife in society and celebrate the very conservative values of family, home, and most important, talking to each other; tellingly, the film got a very warm reception in Tennessee. In the Family will get another shot at reaching New York audiences on November 16; check the official website for a screening in your area.