Originally published on Letterboxd, with no likes.
In the Family
Written and directed by Patrick Wang
Patrick Wang’s moving 3-hour film uses long takes that depict everyday life, work and struggle in a way that reveals characters and their relationships, and also excavates the politics that surrounds them and determines their choices as each moment passes. There’s time for anger, analysis, contemplation, a few laughs, grief, even heartbreak, all in one shot. Lived experience is the mise-en-scène. The actors within these scenes, particularly Wang as the calm, centered, Tennessee-accented Joey Williams, and 6-year-old Sebastian Banes in an uncanny performance as 6-year-old Chip, inhabit these scenes so naturalistically that it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the narrative was based on true events. No, they weren’t based on true events, exactly, but in the way they made me think about marriage equality without ever saying the words, raising the issue specifically, or even pronouncing the word, gay, then yes, they are true. It’s hard to think of many fiction films that qualify as true in the same way.
The plot is simple. After Cody, Chip’s father and Joey’s partner, dies in a car crash, Cody’s sister takes custody of Chip and doesn’t allow Joey to see him. Joey discovers that the world as it is provides no answers to reunite the father and son. How many times such a scenario has happened in real life, we don’t know. But one of the challenges the film makes is to ask its audience that question, in perpetuity.
Wang’s masterpiece was rejected by 30 film festivals before he decided to self-distribute. Subsequently, the film was critically lauded, if forgotten when the time came to make lists, and loved by audiences, which goes to show you how clueless the cultural gatekeepers can be.
Read some risky writing.
The one film I can think of to compare In The Family to, in terms of formal discipline, cinematic achievement and political power, is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, as both a document of the everyday and an attempt to get at “the roots of experience.” Echoing what Akerman said of her masterpiece, “I don’t think woman’s cinema exists,” which can be taken two ways after all. In The Family suggests that gay cinema doesn’t exist either, and then makes the strongest possible case for it anyway.
PS: As I’ve come to expect from worldwide cinephilia right now, and the narrow vision of the gay cultural gatekeepers, it will still take some effort for you to see this. It’s not on anybody’s lists but mine and Roger Ebert’s.