In the Family deserves far more attention than it’s been getting.
Patrick Wang’s superb feature film debut was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and is currently receiving a limited release around the country. But this deeply humanistic, profoundly touching work representing independent cinema at its finest should be seen by far wider audiences.
One possible hurdle to this Tennessee-set family drama is its daunting, nearly three-hour running time. But while the film is certainly leisurely paced, every scene feels absolutely essential.
Director/screenwriter Wang, whose background is in theater, plays the central role of Joey, a soft-spoken gay contractor. Joey has been in a relationship for several years with Cody (Trevor St. John), a widower who lost his wife in childbirth.The two men have together raised his son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) -- now six years old -- with the young boy regarding both of them as his loving dads.
When Cody is killed in an auto accident, Joey is more than prepared to raise Chip as his own. But a long-forgotten legal document signed years ago by Cody awards custody to his sister (Kelly McAndrew), who promptly follows through on the plan.
The anguished Joey’s efforts to be reunited with his son form the heart of the film, which manages to touch on hot-button issues in the subtlest of fashion. As Joey soon discovers, he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on, with every lawyer he approaches refusing to take his case. Except, that is, for Paul (Brian Murray), a well-to-do retired lawyer who volunteers his services out of sheer compassion.
The beautifully nuanced screenplay avoids all clichés and Southern stereotypes, rendering every character with a striking depth and humanity. Wang’s directorial approach is low-key to the extreme, marked by long takes and static compositions that nonetheless hold one’s attention from first second to last.
The Asian-American filmmaker also reveals himself to be a talented actor, playing his central role with a deceptive casualness and heartbreaking vulnerability that makes him deeply sympathetic. His lilting Southern accent and stoic demeanor only adds to his appeal.
He’s well supported by an ensemble cast that includes such theatrical veterans as Susan Kellerman, Park Overall and Murray. The latter, too rarely seen on the big screen, delivers a career-defining performance as the courtly barrister whose gentle demeanor barely masks his wily intelligence and formidable legal skills.
By the time the film reaches its deeply moving conclusion, you will have been completely drawn in by its powerfully elemental storytelling.
Opened May 4 (In the Family L.L.C.).
CAST: Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John, Sebastian Brodziak, Brian Murray, Park Overall, Peter Hermann, Susan Kellermann, Elaine Bromka, Kelly McAndrew.
Director/screenwriter: Patrick Wang.
Producers: Andrew van den Houten, Robert Tonino, Patrick Wang.
Director of photography: Frank Barrera.
Editor: Elwaldo Baptiste.
Production designer: John El Manahi.
Costume designer: Michael Bevins.
Music: Chip Taylor, Andy Wagner.
No rating, 169 minutes.