"In the Family" tells a story about reclaiming your life after forces beyond your control have taken away everything you hold near and dear. Patrick Wang, the film's writer, director and star, tackles volatile subject matter -- a custody battle involving a 6-year-old boy, his aunt, and her brother's Chinese-American live-in lover -- and conveys the topic's urgency, not by ratcheting up the tension, but by allowing the material to breathe.
The results are revelatory. Over the course of nearly three hours, a potentially distancing technique instead draws the audience closer to this close-knit alternative household.
The film, which unfolds in a series of long takes with minimal camera movement, begins in a state of domestic bliss. Chip Hines (Sebastian Brodziak) jumps on his two daddies' bed to thank Joey (Wang) for the sculpted block he left on his son's night table. Chip's going through a dragon phase, and Joey, a Tennessee contractor with a knack for carpentry and book binding, promised him a new block every Monday morning. Cody (Trevor St. John), a math teacher and Chip's biological father, steals a quick kiss from Joey before taking his son to school.
The kitchen phone rings unexpectedly a few days later, not long after Joey and Chip walk in the door. There's been a car accident. At the hospital, Joey demands to know Cody's condition, but the staff feel a lot more comfortable dealing with Dave (Peter Hermann), the patient's brother-in-law, than with this foreign-looking guy who is ... not family. A well-meaning nurse sizes up the situation and tries to slip Joey a form that would grant him visitation rights, but it's too late.
"In the Family's" wrenching first act introduces a motif that Wang uses throughout the film: a tendency to shoot Joey from the back of his head, thus accentuating his status as an outsider in his lover's family. A few months after Cody's funeral, Joey walks into an ambush. What he thought was a friendly bookkeeping visit to his deceased husband's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) escalates into a heated discussion when she reveals that: a) Cody had written a will after his wife's death but before Joey and he became an item, and b) he named her as Chip's guardian.
"Chip is our responsibility. Our legal responsibility," she states. Not on your life, counters Joey, and he leaves with Chip in a huff.
The tug-of-war that follows is best left for viewers to experience for themselves, but suffice it to say there are touching flashbacks that fill in the blanks as to how Joey and Cody's friendship became something more. There's also Paul, the retired attorney for whom Joey volunteers to rebind his law volumes and who then becomes interested in his employee's precarious legal bind. As played by veteran stage and screen actor Brian Murray, the character is a beacon of light in a sea of ignorance and despair. Murray's commanding, thrillingly controlled performance is a thing of beauty. He glances at his steadfast would-be client with quiet admiration, and his devotion mirrors our own.
Wang's theater background is palpable throughout much of "In the Family," particularly in an extended monologue during which the filmmaker makes a compelling case for his right to be a parent. What's even more striking, though, is the director's use of space, how he is able to achieve more nuance with just a handful of static shots than with a more conventional approach.
Astonishingly, this is Wang's feature debut. One may well argue the film is too long, but its cumulative effect is so overwhelming that any gripes about overlength feel petty. Wang has made a profound meditation on what it means to love unconditionally. He stands back and chronicles, in languid detail and without a trace of issue-driven sermonizing, the journey of a man who discovers that when the home you've built threatens to disappear, fighting back becomes not just the moral course of action, but the only one imaginable.
Running time: 169 minutes
Not rated: Vulgar language, adult themes.