Finding out there's a limit to the law in In the Family
Finding out there's a limit to the law in In the Family

Few people I know saw Patrick Wang’s languid drama In the Family when it screened at the Music Box in April, probably because it runs close to three hours. The “slow cinema” movement may be a cause celebre for cinephiles, and civilians may find the idea of long, studious takes intriguing, but few of them will actually pull the trigger on a three-hour movie unless it’s really something special. In the Family is extraordinary, and it casts a spell on the big screen that can’t be reproduced in your living room. So I’m glad Facets Cinematheque is bringing it back for a series of Saturday and Sunday afternoon shows through September, with the filmmaker attending on Sunday, September 9. I can only hope more people will slow themselves down enough to experience it.

Much has been written about the film’s social politics; it tells the story of a gay man in small-town Tennessee who loses his lover to a car accident and custody of their six-year-old son to the dead man’s sister. But what really lingered with me was how beautifully Wang captured the feel of middle-class life in the modern south. Hollywood movies always get it wrong: to a screenwriter in LA, the south is either antebellum homes bursting with greenery or blue-lit, junk-strewn yards in the bayou. Even inspired regional filmmakers like David Gordon Green (George Washington), Matthew Porterfield (Putty Hill), and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) have tended to focus on the ramshackle poor, searching for folklore. But Wang truly understands life in small-town Martin, Tennessee, where In the Family takes place, and his story of prejudice and injustice hits even harder for the fact that he finds so much good there as well.

The movie’s unforced tempo goes a long way toward conjuring up life in the south. One flashback plays out in an uninterrupted handheld shot over nine minutes long, and the climactic scene, a gathering of six people to hear a legal deposition in a conference room, runs over 30 minutes. There’s relatively little cutting; instead Wang carefully composes a shot and lets the actors move around inside it until they’ve made their narrative point. An early and elegant example is the very second shot, about two minutes, in which six-year-old Chip (Sebastian Banes) bursts into his parents’ bedroom to thank his dad, Joey (played by Wang), for the handmade block he’s found by his bedside. When Joey finally emerges from the covers, he’s an Asian man with a thick Tennessee accent, which dislodges any southern stereotypes we might have carried in. The long-haired kid rolls around adorably with Joey and then sprints off, leaving us for the second surprise when Chip’s biological father, Cody (Trevor St. John), leans into the frame and tenderly kisses Joey on the lips.

This sort of filmmaking demands a great deal from the performers, but Wang is superb and his direction of the other players assured. Shortly after Chip wakes up, there’s another two-minute take at the family’s breakfast table as Joey reads the paper and Cody makes the boy’s lunch. Little Sebastian Banes is a natural, and you recognize the sort of two-track conversation among parents and children as the boy babbles on and his fathers only half-listen to him. Hearing Chip repeat a nasty remark one of his teachers made about a colleague, Cody questions the boy, then tells him, “I don’t want you repeating what Mrs. Adams didn’t mean for you to hear.” It’s a relatively fine moral point for a six-year-old, but it shows how this unconventional family still believes in old-fashioned courtesy.

Other shots are wordless but so beautifully staged that they’re eloquent in their emotion. When Cody is critically injured in a car accident, Joey and Chip are summoned to the hospital along with Cody’s mother, Sally (Park Overall); his sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew); and her husband, Dave (Peter Hermann). But because Joey has no status as a family member, he’s prevented from seeing Cody; the nurse is visibly disgusted by him. Soon after, Wang shoots through a closed window of the waiting room, the image sliced into fifths by hanging vertical blinds and cars zooming by on the soundtrack. Joey stands extreme right, his back to the camera, as a doctor and another nurse approach him, and when the nurse looks to the ground, it becomes obvious that Cody is dead. Stunned, Joey doesn’t move a muscle; the doctor and then the nurse walk out of frame, and for more than 20 seconds—which seems like an eternity—Joey stands there in shock, before little Chip shows up at bottom left, searching his father’s face for answers.

None of this fine detail would matter, though, if Wang hadn’t also fashioned a plot like a bear trap, an asset In the Family shares with the best “slow cinema” films (Cristi Piui’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Watching the story unfold, you’re reminded that suspense—the bitch goddess of Hollywood, to whom every young screenwriter prays—is unrelated to screen time, that it can be created and sustained at the most leisurely pace, without any pumping score or jittery editing. A few weeks after Cody’s death, Joey visits Eileen to sort out some papers and learns that she’s found a will and testament, signed by Cody just after his wife died, that names Eileen as Chip’s guardian. The mortgage to Cody and Joey’s home now belongs to her, she’s transferred Cody’s accounts to her name, and worst of all, she intends to take Chip into her home. Joey is incredulous, but Eileen holds him at arm’s length with that genteel sweetness one finds in small towns. “I am Chip’s dad!” Joey finally shouts before storming out. “Since when did that need explaining?”

The conflict escalates in relatively short order, and within a few days the family have gotten hold of Chip and taken out a restraining order on Joey. This quick turnaround struck a chord with me; as a northerner in the deep south, I often saw the sweetest people turn ice cold when they decided I was an outsider. From that point the movie begins to operate as a low-boiling legal thriller, though Wang has shrewdly established Joey’s emotional claim to Chip long before we understand that his legal claim is groundless. Joey is turned away by every attorney in town until Paul Hawks (Brian Murray), a retired lawyer whose home Joey is rehabbing, agrees to take on his case. Hawks is a man who’s practiced enough law to know its limits, but he has sound advice for Joey. “Just because the law has limits does not mean our lives have those same limits. . . . When you’re out of court, when the person across the table is no longer an adversary, a lot more is possible.”

This kind gesture comes as something of a surprise—Hawks and his wife are old-money types with a big, baronial house, not the sort of Tennesseans you expect to befriend a gay man—but it’s very much in sync with Wang’s portrayal of the close-knit community. A little circle of women forms around Joey after he loses Chip, lending moral support and even keeping him in touch with his son on the down-low. The small-town neighborliness turns out to be central to the theme because Wang has done so much groundwork showing Joey and Cody as normal parents, juggling play dates and PTA meetings. The fact that they share many of their neighbors’ traditional values reinforces the sense that they belong to the town, and that Chip belongs to Joey, no matter how unhappy this makes some people.