The late, great director Ingmar Bergman didn’t often (if at all) deal with gay themes in his cinematic explorations of family and mortality (Smiles of a Summer Night, Fanny & Alexander, Cries and Whispers, et al). If Bergman had done so, however, and put an Asian-American instead of a Swede at the center of the film, the result may have looked like In the Family. This award-winning drama by Patrick Wang is re-opening in New York City by popular demand and premiering in Las Vegas today. It is scheduled for release in other cities, including San Francisco and San Diego, next month.
Proclaimed “an indie masterpiece” by no less than Roger Ebert, Wang focuses on and plays Joey, a Tennessee man fighting for the legal right to raise his partner’s son following the father’s sudden death. Though Cody (played by One Life to Live’s Trevor St. John) and Joey had been together several years, Cody hadn’t updated his will prior to his tragic demise. As a result, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) gains sole custody of precocious, 6-year old Chip (Sebastian Banes), whose birth mother had also died prematurely.
Joey -- a contractor by trade with an “Aw, shucks” demeanor who was himself adopted as a child -- admits “I’m kind of a moron when it comes to these things” as Eileen confronts him with the truth about her legal standing (she also gains Cody’s financial assets, including the house in which Joey resides). Soon after she forcibly takes Chip, Joey tries to secure a lawyer to represent him as the only other parent Chip has ever known but is repeatedly rebuffed. Finally, a retired attorney (a nice, dignified performance by three-time Tony Award nominee Brian Murray) married to the woman whose home Joey is renovating agrees to take the case. As Joey’s new legal counsel pointedly tells him, “Just because the law has limits doesn’t mean our lives have those same limits.”
Things build slowly to Joey and Eileen’s climactic legal hearing, and I do mean slowly: In the Family runs nearly three hours. Wang’s deliberate, naturalistic style proves to be both a strength and a weakness. At times, such as a wordless scene wherein Joey and Chip have a drink together that perfectly captures the “shorthand” of parent-child intimacy, it is a bravura approach that would make Ingmar Bergman proud. Several sequences flashing back to when Cody and Joey first began their relationship (interestingly, neither man had been attracted to a member of the same gender before) are similarly well done.
At other moments, though, especially when Joey is brooding and grieving alone or receiving advice from some female friends, the pace can be grueling. Wang is apparently emulating the more relaxed rhythm of small-town Southern life (amusingly, most of the film was shot in Yonkers, New York). He is effectively aided and abetted in this regard not only by his fellow actors but by Frank Barrera’s stately cinematography. In the final analysis, the overall timeliness of Wang’s storyline as well as the film’s lack of sentimentality is of considerable value despite its lack of economy.
I can’t say whether the very heterosexual Bergman would approve of In the Family’s central, same-sex relationship from a moral standpoint but I like to think the master would appreciate the importance Wang assigns to family, however defined.
Reverend’s Rating: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.