When first-time filmmaker Patrick Wang's "In The Family" was initially released in theaters way back in November 2011 (after premiering at the Hawaii Film Festival a month earlier), it had a tiny
limited showing in New York that was met with little fanfare (though it did get a rave in The New York Times). It seemed poised to disappear into obscurity, as many micro-budgeted indies before it, but then slowly but surely supporters came to its rescue.
First, it managed a Spirit Award nomination for best first feature (alongside "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and eventual winner "Margin Call"), and then in April of 2012, the late, great Roger Ebert gave it a seriously glowing review.
"I was completely absorbed from beginning to end," Ebert wrote. "What a courageous first feature this is, a film that sidesteps shopworn stereotypes and tells a quiet, firm, deeply humanist story about doing the right thing."
The praise surely helped lead to a second theatrical release in New York this past December, as well as to today's release on DVD and Blu-ray, where you can and should finally catch the film if you didn't get a chance during its sporadic run in various art house cinemas.
The small town Tennessee-set "Family" relays the heartbreaking story of Joey (played by Wang himself), a man struggling to maintain custody of the six-year old son (remarkably authentic child actor Sebastian Banes) he was raising with his boyfriend after his boyfriend is tragically killed in a car accident. The boyfriend's will (written before they had gotten together) states that custody of kin is to go to his sister, who passionlessly tears the child away from Joey as a result.
"They have a beautiful life, but events occur that threaten their future happiness," Wang told Indiewire. "As we live through these events with this family, the extended family, and the community at large, we observe the complicated forces at play in the social fabric of the town and in each individual. As in many movies, there is a picture of escalation of tensions, but perhaps rarer, there is also an idea for realistic de-escalation and how we might regain our peace."
Despite its whopping 169-minute running time, the film is
restrained and subtle in ways that typically bog down "issue movies"
culminates in one of the most emotionally raw cinematic experiences in any recent LGBT-themed film.
Wang said that he sees the movie as "an expression of the values and sympathies, aesthetic and personal," that he has accumulated over years.
"That is the heart of the film, and so the most important elements in the film don't have a simple, singular beginning," he said. "However, there was a day, back in 2009, when I began writing this particular story. I had an image of this family, two dads and their young son, playing soccer. I knew they lived in the South, but I didn't know much more than that, and so I spent a lot of time wondering about them. The pattern by which the movie formed after that was: details would accumulate, I tried to weed out the harmful ones, I tried to give form to what was left, I observed the new state of things, and then I started to accumulate new details. The process itself is a little mundane and iterative, but hopefully better things can be said of the result."
Better things certainly have, and certainly will be again as more viewers discover "In The Family" at home, a whole 20 months after it hit theaters.
"The making of this film was an exercise in how to plan, then roll with the opportunities as they evolved and revealed themselves," Wang said. "The completed film, finding its way into the world, has taken a similar path. There were certainly parts of me that were frustrated and severely disappointed that more pieces of the pipeline were not aligned to help move the film quickly into the world. But then I look to my heroes in film, and they were similarly uninvited to that ride. So that reminder helps the fog clear, and then I can see the great fortune we have had. With the help of many champions, we've managed to enter and then stay in the film conversation for two years."
In the age of buzz, that is no small feat.
"I've been witness to a rare passion in our audiences," Wang added. "The film grows on the audience, and the audience itself continues to grow. Audiences, and here I'm proud to say American audiences in all their diversity, are capable of so much. That is how I interpret the increasing profile of the film over time, and nothing makes me happier."
Find out how to watch "In The Family" here.
"Que(e)ries" is a column by Indiewire Senior Writer Peter Knegt. Follow him on Twitter.