2011 marked the feature film debut of Patrick Wang with 'In the Family' – on which he served as writer, director, producer and star. The film initially had a miniscule release, but managed to garner some awards attention on the indie circuit and after what feels like a very long journey, has finally found its way to Blu-ray and, hopefully, a wider audience.
Wang tells an incredibly personal and humanistic story with his extensive film – it clocks in at around 169 minutes – and even though it is rife with issues seemingly ripped from today's headlines, he chooses not to play up the drama in the typical sense, opting instead to have the film take a very intimate and intimate tale of loss, family and misappropriated obligation and ensure that it stays firmly rooted in that delicate personal state. 'In the Family' could have easily given itself over and become a powerhouse, issues-driven movie that garnered a great deal of attention thanks to its portrayal of a gay, Asian-American man's fight to remain a father to the child who had only known him as one of his dads. But Wang chose to take a different route, and in doing so has crafted a fine debut that is as powerful in its emotional tenderness and humanity as it is in the thoughtful, measured manner its director chose to convey such sentiment.
The film tells the story of Joey Williams (Patrick Wang), a quiet sort of everyman, who is wholly good; someone who makes friends easily and deeply, but has been looked at as an foreigner most of his life. We quickly learn that Joey is a skilled woodworker who also has a flair for rebinding books, but, more importantly, he is also a loving partner to Cody (Trevor St. John) and father to Chip (the fantastic Sebastian Brodziak or Banes, depending of where you're getting your information), ever since Chip's mother (Cody's wife) died shortly after he was born. For his part, Wang takes great care in setting up the man that Joey Williams is because he knows the audience is going to be spending a significant amount of time with him; not watching him maneuver through conflict and hoping he emerges victorious, but rather sharing in Joey's sense of perpetually being an outsider, even amongst those he would consider to be his "family."
The film assuredly reveals itself in an uncomfortable, meticulously crafted scene set in a waiting room following the news that Cody was involved in an automobile accident. There's no Cody lying on a hospital gurney, or sounds of ambulances. Instead, there is just the solemn uncertainty of the waiting room and the comfort of individuals who regard Joey warmly enough, but as soon as he's denied access to his dying partner on the grounds he is not family, they just look back at him and shrug, suggesting that the nurse's Draconian adherence to policy prevents them from speaking up on his behalf. This division, the idea of "real" family vs. the life Cody built for himself with Joey and Chip, begins to gradually establish itself as the foundation on which the entire film is based.
After the unpleasant events in the hospital turn tragic, the door for things to spiral out of control is left wide open; but first, Wang makes the decision to allow for a return to normal – or at least the semblance thereof. Joey's life – and, more importantly, Chip's – is upended once again after Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) reveals a will that predates his relationship with Joey, Cody had assigned custody of Chip to her and her husband David. At this point it becomes clear that the pitiless interpretation of hospital policy, which prevented Joey from seeing Cody before he died, has now carried over to the question of how his child will be raised and by whom – irksomely overlooking the fact that Joey is, and has been, Chip's dad for as long as the boy can remember.
The question of custody and familial obligation make up the rest of this story, but the brilliance of 'In the Family' doesn't come from some depiction of legal expertise or a harrowing and melodramatic take on the standard courtroom drama. Instead it comes from the slow, methodical manner in which Wang depicts how decency and levelheadedness can ultimately carry more weight than any document or legal ruling.
This is a deeply affecting humanist movie that, above all else, is about the desire for most people to do the right thing – even it the road some take in getting there is longer than others.
The most remarkable thing about the film, however, is the way it so carefully balances the raw intensity of a nascent filmmaker with some astonishingly powerful decisions that belie Wang's status as a first-time director. For starters, yes, the film is too long; it could be cut down to a less intimidating run-time without risking any of its emotional weight (there are some scenes depicting Joey and Cody in flashback that serve the purpose of rounding out St. John's role some, but don't add enough to our understanding of their relationship – early scenes of them partaking in early morning domestic rituals do this far better – to justify them being there).
But beyond that, 'In the Family' is incredibly solid not only in its storytelling, but in the cinematic manner Wang chooses to convey certain feelings, many of which are done through camera placement alone. Much of the film is built on a series of incredibly long takes that could rival the notable scenes in 'Hunger.' The reason they stand out, however, is the way the camera remains mostly static – giving the audience the sense of experiencing Joey's perspective without resorting to a POV. In fact, many scenes prominently feature Joey, but do so with only a portion of his body, or, more often than not, the back of his head visible to the viewer. It is a clever technique that doesn't take long to convey a simple message of how one incredibly decent man has spent a lifetime pursuing a life amongst those who, perhaps unknowingly, placed him in the periphery.
'In the Family' foregoes the usual clichés that normally swarm around "issue" movies, making them nearly insufferable, to richly tell a moving and individual story about compassion and understanding that is far more universal than anything in recent memory.
'In the Family' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in a cardboard case housing the film and a booklet, which contains essays from Godfrey Cheshire, Michael Guillén, Dave Boyle and Brian Hu.
Shot on RED, 'In the Family' makes the most of its 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer in close-ups and brightly lit scenes, but falters somewhat in darker moments, or segments that seem to rely mostly on natural lighting. While this serves the film well regarding the naturalistic style of its storytelling, there are more than a few instances where the image comes off as hazy, is overwhelmed by crush or banding, or just flat-out doesn't compare to some of the more established visual moments in the film.
Now, none of this has to do with the way Patrick Wang and his DP Frank Barrera shot the film – for the most part, it's exquisitely crafted – but rather these issues simply serve to illustrate the limitations an independent filmmaker can have when it comes to creating a perfect picture.
Still, there are plenty of moments that not only balance out the hazier elements, but almost make you forget about them completely. There is a beautifully shot moment later on in the film where the camera slowly pans between Joey and his employer/lawyer Paul (Brian Murray), as they discuss the limitations of his case, and his decision to pursue it anyway, which is remarkably well shot and gorgeously lit via a window that looks as though it's emitting white-hot light. It is in scenes like this where the fine detail and the contrast levels are a their highest, and the deliberate richness in detail and craft suggest Wang and Barrera intended for these moments to enjoy the clarity associated with the digital format over others.
Regardless of cinematographic format, 'In the Family' is an indie film through and through, so there are naturally some limitations to be expected in terms of the quality of the image. It turns out to be uneven, but it does little to impact the film overall. ,
'In the Family' is a quiet, contemplative film that does not put much emphasis on sound beyond assuring the actors' lines are presented distinctly and with great clarity. On that level, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a nice job. Elsewhere, though, especially in regard to sound elements that depict voices from other areas, or ambient and atmospheric sound, the mix can be slightly anemic.
Thankfully, the majority of the film takes place indoors – specifically in the home shared by Joey and Cody. There are occasions where scenes unfold outdoors and there is a hint of background noise – i.e., children playing, traffic and the like – which manages to seep through on the rear and sometimes front channels, but it is slight and never truly envelopes the scene in the way it might on other pictures. There are some music elements that lend additional depth to the film's presentation consisting of a limited selection of tunes from musician (and story element) Chip Taylor, which come through cleanly, but rarely manage to rise above much more than an additional element in the background. Strangely enough, though, this actually works to the film's advantage.
Primarily, it is the job of the mix to make sure the emotions and the range of the actors is clearly conveyed through the dialogue and occasional sound effect. This is not a bombastic film – in fact there are few scenes in which a character's voice rises above a conversational tone – so there is not much need for anything beyond the sound mix we are given here.
'In the Family' is an auspicious feature film debut and a critical darling that barely registered amongst audiences during its initial release. This is a film that deserves to gain a wider fanbase and with luck this terrific Blu-ray will do the trick. If you haven't yet seen Patrick Wang's moving film, it should certainly be at the top of your must-see list. There is plenty to enjoy on this disc beyond the film that provides additional insight into the director and these elements should also serve as a reason to put this wonderful, moving film on your shelf. Highly recommended.