It’s tough for the drama. For every movie that is successfully earnest and sincere in its heartbreaking story, about fifty others are willed into the cinema that rest on familiar tropes, forced emotions lacking any legitimate heart, and a trusty sensational score that knows just when to blare. Their power is so considerable that it’ll make a pessimist out of even the least bitter moviegoer. But when that anomaly does come along, it needs to be held high, trumpeted so fiercely that it drowns out all of the other hollow tearjerkers. So here we shall declare Patrick Wang’s “In the Family” that able wonder to which we shall champion with fervor.
But if the words “heartfelt” or “triumphant” make you immediately queasy, the filmmaker’s work still deserves to be given a chance based on the aesthetic it employs and the flow of the story, both of which are deeply impressive. Basically, unless you’re morally opposed to its subject matter or are knee-jerk dismissive of lengthy running times, there’s no way ‘Family’ won’t hook you.
Down in Martin, Tennessee, six-year-old Chip (Sebastian Banes) is enjoying a happy childhood with his two fathers, Cody (Trevor St. John) and Joey (Wang). Despite the two beginning their relationship soon after Cody’s wife’s passing (and leaving him with baby Chip), the family is accepting of their bond and it seems the community is as well. Unfortunately, things fall apart in the blink of an eye.
Cody is involved in a fatal car accident, leaving Joey and Chip’s lives in shambles. To make matters worse, the departed’s will (constructed before the couple had gotten together) states that the custody of kin is to go to Cody’s sister, ripping the boy away from the only parent he still has left. Suddenly the acceptance is gone, and any stabilizing element in Joey’s life has been promptly eradicated. Lawyers turn him down left and right, convincing him that the case can’t be won — until he meets aged local attorney Paul (Tony-nominated Brian Murray) and, taken by his plight, the older gentleman decides to battle alongside the grieving man.
“Restrained” would be a good word to describe “In the Family.” Though the plot summary reveals some palpable anguish, the filmmaker orchestrates everything with a delicate hand: most scenes are understated and paced leisurely, staged in one unbroken shot to focus on the movement within the space. After Cody’s funeral, Joey sits in a catatonic state in the kitchen, a location that is shot wide with the distressed main character in the foreground. Chip, hoping to cheer up his father, grabs a bottle of beer and pushes a chair further into the background in order to pull a drinking glass from the top cabinet. He returns to the table and sets the drink in front of his pop, then proceeds to clear the unkempt area of superfluous junk mail and paperwork that have cluttered the area since their loss. The result is piercing, but the director doesn’t bully these feelings out of you — because of his interest in letting the moment sink in, because of his real interest in these characters and their bereavement, it is earned. The movie operates in this fashion for its entire course.
But it’s the running time that scares people (likely the deciding factor for its limited festival play), and with the New York Times “slow-and-boring” descriptor already applied to it, its extended length isn’t exactly enticing. Of course, anytime you see a duration longer than 120 minutes (169 min here), it appears hostile or punishing, but the film’s patient nature manages to draw you in deeper. In addition, the story is given greater weight thanks to its epic length: by now we’re used to seeing movies focused on dealing with loss, and thanks to the network television onslaught, we’re more than satisfied with dire legal proceedings. ‘Family’ makes every minute of Joey’s alienation felt, and these now cliche topics and scenarios are given new power. If it were to be truncated at all it wouldn’t work, and it’d likely all topple down like the end of a riveting Jenga game. Everything builds to the final “showdown,” a near half-hour scene (bringing to mind the long ending portion of “The Maltese Falcon”) which employs all of the momentum already built and still manages to throw some potent and affecting new developments onto the field.
Superb acting is the icing on the cake, with Wang carrying the picture on his back and conveying an enormous amount of emotion even with the camera generally fixated on the back of his head. An astonishingly moving film about the importance (and redefining) of family, “In the Family” will both break your heart and fill it to the brim with warmth — and it won’t trick you along the way. [A]