film note: In the Family

A particular, universal story

Originally published on Letterboxd with no likes.

I haven’t changed my mind in thinking that In the Family is not only one of the most powerful GTMs of the last 50 years but also deserves a place on any best-of list.

Yet it remains inexplicably underseen.

In the Family
Written and directed by Patrick Wang
2h 49 min, USA, 2011

Patrick Wang’s moving nearly 3-hour film In The Family uses long takes that depict everyday life and work in a way that both reveals characters and their relationships and excavates the politics that surrounds them as each moment passes. There’s time for anger, analysis, contemplation, a few laughs, grief, even heartbreak, all in one shot.

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.

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. 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, by Ebert, too no less, and loved by audiences, which goes to show you how clueless the cultural gatekeepers can be, particularly in film right now.

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.

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In the Family
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