Roger Ebert ended his review of Patrick Wang’s In the Family with these words:
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. It is a film that avoids any message or statement and simply shows us, with infinite sympathy, how the life of a completely original character can help us lead our own.
When I participated in a panel discussion a couple of days later on the “art of the video essay”, Patrick Wang was on the panel, and Steven Boone, a friend of mine, was sitting next to me, and he said, “Here comes a grandiose statement. In the Family could solve all of America’s problems.” His comment got a huge laugh, as I believe it was meant to do, but on another level he was dead serious. And having seen the film, I know now what he means. Read again Roger Ebert’s words. And think about how the world could be made a better place if we all internalized the message of the film on a cultural or social level. And having listened to Patrick Wang speak, both on the panel and in the QA following the screening of his extraordinary first feature, I can see how deliberate and careful he had been in choosing the elements of his story. This is a guy who knows exactly what he is doing. He said in the QA at one point, “Well, I’m not 25 … so I think my age does make a difference.” He was responding to yet another, “But how … how on earth did you even DO this … and this is a first feature? Really?”
Believe the hype. In the Family really is that good.
To go totally corny, In the Family makes you want to be a good person. It’s not easy to be good, and there will always be obstacles in your way. But if you can meet someone, even an adversary, on a human level, if you attempt to break through the facade of needs/wants/resentments that sometimes color human interactions … great transformations in understanding can (and do) take place. Relationships can change in such moments, even old old relationships, like ones with family members, where it seems like the dynamic is set in stone. In the Family is a reminder that nothing is set in stone. We are all just making our way through this life, and we disagree, sometimes horribly, but nothing is a done deal, as long as we keep attempting to listen.
In the Family comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray (and my co-panelist and former editor at Fandor and new friend Kevin Lee has a video essay on the film that Patrick Wang loved so much he is including on the special features!) on June 25, and I beg you all to check it out.
Sometimes breathlessly positive commentary can be a turn-off. At least that is true for me. You know, “The Dark Knight is the best movie released in my lifetime” kind of commentary, which basically makes me think, “Well. That person just needs to see more movies.” But sometimes … sometimes … that commentary is so unanimous (as it has been with In the Family), and so insistently positive that my curiosity is piqued. Especially with a small independent film such as this, which was rejected by countless festivals, which had a nearly invisible distribution (it came and went, if you blinked you missed it) – then in this case it is the critic’s job, or mission even, to get the word out. In the Family must NOT disappear without a trace. People MUST see this extraordinary film. I am very grateful to the critics who have written on it – Ebert, Marilyn Ferdinand, and others – because that film was on my radar for months, even though I was unable to see it until last week. A related story: In December, 1944, a new play by Tennessee Williams called The Glass Menagerie opened in freezing Chicago. It was a bitter winter, and people were not going out to the theatre. The production starred Laurette Taylor, and the performance is now legendary and known as one of the greatest performances by an actress in the 20th century, but at first the production foundered. There were thoughts that it might even close in Chicago before even moving to New York. Williams had only had one play produced at that time, Battle of Angels, and it had closed during its tryout in Boston, amidst cries of obscenity and outrage. Glass Menagerie limped along, playing to half-empty houses, but two local Chicago theatre critics, Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens, began championing the production. They wrote piece after piece, singing its praises, harassing Chicagoans with the refrain: “You must see this play, you must see this play”, until finally the tide began to turn. Not only did locals start to flock to see the play, but the reviews got the attention of New Yorkers and Los Angeles movie people, who began making stopovers in Chicago on their train/plane trips to either coast, in order to see this wondrous production. Those two brave loud-mouth critics had a huge part in keeping that struggling production open during the perilous first couple of weeks when so many shows close. And, of course, the play moved to Broadway in March of 1945, and the rest is history.
I felt that way, a little bit, reading the various pieces on In the Family. There was almost a pleading quality to the prose of the critics. They felt so deeply about In the Family, it actually pained them to think of it disappearing, to think of it not finding an audience. In this instance, the critics were key in keeping the conversation about that film alive, as it started to make its appearance at various festivals, or pop up for a week here, a week there, at small arthouse theatres across the country.
In the QA following, run by Michael Barker, co-President and co-Founder of Sony Pictures Classic, and the aforementioned Kevin Lee, with Patrick Wang and Trevor St. John (who is in the film, and who arrived 20 minutes before the QA began due to the storm re-routing planes, trains and automobiles), we learned a little bit about Patrick Wang. Many of the questions were along the lines of, “Where did you come from??” It is startling, too, that he does not have a Tennessee accent like he has in the film. You would totally believe that he was that guy in In the Family. Patrick Wang went to M.I.T. and got degrees in economics and physics. While at M.I.T., he became interested in theatre, and formed a theatre company. He spent years directing theatre, and acting in plays. This experience shows in the film, which is one of the best Acting Movies I’ve seen in a long long time. Takes are very long, often scenes play out in one take, so it’s similar to watching a play, where you are seeing things unfold in real time, with no editing or cuts.
Patrick Wang wrote the script, acted in the lead role, and directed. It is a trifecta of awesomeness, putting him in rare company. Not for one second does it feel like a vanity project. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work, and it is about many things. It leaves great room for the audience to project their own experience onto the storyline.
The plot is not a simple one. The film is quite long, and yet it doesn’t feel long. It feels as long as it needs to be to effectively tell its story.
Wang plays Joey, a contractor, who lives with his partner Cody (Trevor St. John), and Cody’s young son Chip (the amazing Sebastian Banes). Cody’s wife died in childbirth. Joey had come into their lives as a contractor, and became a friend. In the wake of Cody’s wife’s death, a relationship develops between the two men, a friendship of sorts, but with a current running underneath it. (All of this is revealed in flashbacks.) Cody has never been in a relationship with a man before, and it is unclear whether or not Joey has either, but the two men fall in love. They live together for five years, raising Chip, who has developed into one of the most normal little boys I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. He is going through “a dragon phase”, as Joey says at one point, so every single thing in his life right now is about dragons. In the opening scene, we see the family getting ready to go to work and school, and Wang films it often with the three characters in the frame at the same time. Camera placement is key for Wang. By seeing these three individuals drink coffee, eat breakfast, talk about their day, do their activities, things we all do in our own households, we immediately know who they are, like them, are invested in them, whatever else you want to call it. It’s so real that I was amazed to learn that everything was said word-for-word from the script (even the child actor). You can’t believe that these were words on a page, once upon a time.
Then, Cody is killed in a car accident. In the scenes that follow, as Joey and Chip struggle to move on without Cody, you get the sense that all is not right. That something big is coming. And it does indeed come. Cody’s sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) tells Joey that she has uncovered a will that Cody made out when his wife died, leaving control of his estate to her. “You don’t have to worry about Chip anymore,” she says, a terrible line, especially when said so gently and compassionately. Worry about him? He’s raising him. He’s his father. So events begin to wrench forward, awfully, inevitably, with the feeling of a Greek tragedy, and yet Patrick Wang never lets the film go off the rails tonally. It is not an “issue” film, as Ebert pointed out. It’s not a gay rights film, although there are certainly scenes that touch on the unfairness of the situation (when Cody is in the hospital, Joe is not allowed in the room because “he isn’t family”). It’s a human film. It’s about humans in the wake of a giant tragedy, the death of Cody. It is never questioned that Eileen is acting out of love for her brother: This is what he wanted, he said it in his will. On Thanksgiving, Joey drops Chip off at Eileen’s house, and then never sees him again. He is denied access to his son. He is cut off.
Joey calls lawyers, but no one will take his case. He and Cody never married. Of course they didn’t, they are two men living in a country where we are still battling out that issue. One lawyer tells him bluntly, “You do not have a child custody case.” The film never once takes a maudlin sentimental tone. Just as Joey is denied Chip, so are we. We have spent some time with this little boy. We have learned about his dragons. We have seen him blabbing to his fathers about his day at school. We miss his presence terribly. As established, Joey is a building contractor, and we have seen him at work, managing the renovation of a giant manor, bringing in glass-cutters and wallpaperers, and having tense meetings with the home’s owner, played by Susan Kellermann. Through this connection, he meets an elderly retired lawyer (played by the magnificent Irish actor Brian Murray). The lawyer owns a bunch of old books that are deteriorating, and Joey reveals that he knows a little something about bookbinding (we will figure out from where he got this knowledge later in the film). He offers to work on the books. The lawyer has heard a little bit about what Joey is going through, and offers to help. Even writing down those words does a disservice to how that scene plays out. It is a masterpiece, masterfully written by Wang, masterfully directed, with the camera flowing back and forth to the two faces, and masterfully acted by both actors.
Then follows a deposition scene, which, if the world were just, would enter into the canon of All-Time Greatest Scenes Ever Filmed.
Present are Joey, his lawyer, Cody’s sister and husband and their lawyer, and the court stenographer. After the film, at the QA, Michael Barker asked Wang, “How long is that deposition scene?” Wang answered, “35 minutes.” Much of it plays out in long unbroken takes. The tension is unbearable, and yet quiet and human. Nothing is pumped up artificially. People go through such things every day in this country (and others), and the stakes could not be higher. Human lives and human happiness are on the table. Both sides want something. Both, one must assume, are going after what they want with the best intentions. Cases like this go to trial because people stop listening to one another, people refuse to compromise, people are unwilling to give something up.
You see again why Steven Boone made the comment he did at the panel.
It is an unbelievably confident first feature, and while there are many issues that are present (gay rights, racism), they are never underlined or even spoken. I don’t think the word “gay” is ever used. The fact that Joey is a Chinese-American with a Tennessee accent is not commented upon, although you can see, in certain scenes, that he is treated with a baffled kindness, because people don’t know where to place him. In a very funny flashback, where Joey joins Cody’s family for Thanksgiving for the first time, Cody’s tippling mother (the awesome Park Overall), treats Patrick with kind-hearted and yet oblivious condescension. She obviously thinks he is just off the boat from China. She starts to explain the traditions of Thanksgiving, and Cody murmurs, “He knows what Thanksgiving is, Mom.” None of this is played as though Joey is living in a KKK hotbed. Nobody’s a villain. The touch is always light, almost invisible, and yet present.
Joey is born and raised American, he grew up in foster care, he learned carpentry skills from his foster father, and has a Tennessee accent. Without putting too fine a point on it, there has not been such a portrayal of an Asian character in American film, ever, and you can imagine the sorts of roles Wang would be up for, if he went a more traditional route, and a sort of macho take-care-of-it guy in work boots speaking with a drawl is not one of them. And yet such men exist. Of course they do.
Wang deals with some of these underlying themes in an interesting way, as a director. He often shoots himself from behind. Often the back of his head fills the screen, and we see others looking at him. In fact, that is the image for the poster.
Kevin Lee had some very interesting observations about this device, which he shared in the QA following, and is part of what he was addressing in the video-essay he did for the film. By denying us access to his face, Wang, in many ways, places us directly into the lead character Joey’s experience. We are seeing what he is seeing – literally. We are in his head, looking out.
To make the point even more deliberately: Think of the portrayal of Asian characters in American film, and think of how they are utilized, cast, and thought about. In other words: they aren’t, for the most part. There have, of course, been major inroads in this area in recent years, especially in the realm of television, but we still have a long way to go. By putting the back of his own head in the screen in so many scenes, Patrick Wang becomes us and vice versa. It’s radical and revolutionary.
And so in the final moment of In the Family, the very last second of the film (which I would not dream of revealing) … the audience, 1,500 of us, literally gasped. You could HEAR a gigantic collective gasp erupt in the theatre at that last shot. And then … a roaring weeping ovation that went on forever. Patrick Wang came out onto the stage, and 1,500 people rose to their feet and clapped and cheered and cried and roared “Bravo” for 10 minutes. It is one of the most emotional and important moments I have ever had in a movie theatre.
The American dream tells us that anyone who lives here has a shot at making it, whatever that might mean, if you work hard enough, if you stick to your guns, if you don’t give up. No one is stuck. Nothing is “set in stone” here. Yes, it is hard to make your dreams come true. But there are vast examples of those who persevere, despite humble beginnings (hello), who take the American dream at its word and climb that mountain, triumphantly. The American dream tells us that if you want something, you actually have a shot at achieving it (remember: we don’t have the “right to happiness”, we have the right to the “pursuit of happiness”). Patrick Wang’s film, which is about so much, grief, family, fear, belonging (and being outside the charmed circle of belonging), love, child-rearing, understanding, intimacy, misunderstanding, is also about the American dream. But, in that key scene I mentioned earlier with the elderly lawyer who gives Joey some guidance at how to begin navigating the shoals of legalese in these tough situations, it is made clear that the “American dream” (never named in the film) is not just about “going after what you want”. It is also about thinking, and deeply, about what you are willing to give up, to compromise on, in the pursuit of that dream.
It is the shining underbelly of the American dream, or perhaps the invisible halo shimmering around it, something never discussed, never named in our culture, barely perceived. But it is there. It exists in our checks and balances, in the vast messy compromises we have made politically, in our mis-steps, in our correctives. Patrick Wang doesn’t ask anything of us specifically. But his film is a reminder that we share this planet together. Go after what you want, for sure. But also acknowledge that other people exist on the planet too, and acknowledge that you may have to be prepared to give something up. And what would that be? Can’t we all just get along? asked Rodney King. Maybe, maybe not. But it is in those moments of stress and division, personally, socially, politically, when it is crucial to ask yourself not “what am I willing to DO to get what I want”, but “what am I willing to give UP”?
That is a whole different kind of conversation.
I repeat: I think Steven Boone is onto something.