You've probably heard little about In the Family, a remarkably fresh and unpredictable drama set in the American everytown of Martin, Tenn. This off-the-map independent production was rejected by 30 festivals before its October premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival.
In the Family is the first film by its writer, director and low-key leading man, Patrick Wang, whose creative background is in stage acting and dramaturgy. The film boasts more than a few memorable performances — by Elaine Bromka, Park Overall and Kelly McAndrew, among others — and one truly remarkable turn by the stage great Brian Murray, as a grandfatherly Southern lawyer with a voice as smooth and warm as a tumbler of bourbon, a role worthy of Will Rogers.
Yet Wang's slow-reveal psychological drama isn't just a showcase for his excellent ensemble cast. Beautifully modulated and stylistically sui generis, In the Family is one of the most accomplished and undersold directorial debuts in recent months.
The story is topical yet timeless: a searching, present-tense study of evolving cultural values in the heartland and an unsentimental portrait of a family devastated by the tragedy of an early death.
Six-year-old Chip Hines (Sebastian Brodziak) lost his mother at birth, but his father, Cody (Trevor St. John), began dating again not long after. To the surprise of everyone in this traditional Southern family, including Cody himself, his new partner was a man — of Asian heritage, no less — named Joey Williams (Wang).
Joey is a contractor by trade and a Tennessean by birth. He dresses in duck jackets and denim, and drives a red pickup. When he ambles over to introduce himself, with his easy smile and slightly down-home drawl, his voice sings with a kind of plain-spoken poetry. Joey Williams is his full and legal name, not short for anything, and it's a pretty good handle for such a straightforward and uncomplicated guy.
Beyond some lightly comic meet-the-parents awkwardness seen in a Thanksgiving Day flashback, the extended Hines clan welcomes the new in-law to the family — some politely if uncomfortably, some with relaxed warmth. Chip openly and unambiguously embraces Joey as "Dad."
But when Cody dies in a car accident, Joey's loss of a partner is compounded by a rapidly escalating custody battle with Chip's sister (McAndrew), who secures legal custody of the boy to raise him as her own.
What follows is difficult to classify generically: It is too carefully distanced to be a melodrama, too personally specific to stand as a civil-rights allegory (an expected third-act courtroom confrontation is derailed in a fascinating way). What makes In the Family so elusive is that it is structured less by story events than whisper-soft subtleties of characterization and unspoken social subtexts. You will not hear, for instance, one overt reference to sexuality, race or gay marriage.
The film's oblique cultural politics remain a tantalizing mystery. In interviews, Wang has cited a meeting with civil-rights lawyer Evan Wolfson as an inspiration for his film, and one might see it as a cultural conservative plea to extend traditional marital values and legal rights to same-sex couples. Yet the film's ending does not reconstitute the traditional family as such but rather suggests a more expansive and even progressive idea of what "family" might mean. Scenes unfold in contemplative long takes and carefully framed, deep-focus compositions. The style is too dramatically focused and pictorially unfussy to be classified as art-house minimalism. It also is too deliberative to be mistaken for a Hollywood prestige picture. Wang betrays his theatrical background with a slightly plodding tendency to begin and end scenes with arrivals or departures. Some heads and tails could be trimmed, but the pacing works quite well.
Wang's directorial eye might be untrained, but it is extremely acute. One senses he is rediscovering the rules of cinema on his own. This is a career to keep an eye on.