In Tennessee, as in much of the American South, certain things aren't spoken of. Or rather, they are discussed with a kind of good-neighbourly literalness which effectively drains the life from them.
This is especially the case for an Asian-American gay man who loses custody of the six-year-old son he has raised with his partner. In the role of Joey, director Patrick Wang (whose background is more on the stage) stars as a man who is invited into people's lives, yet remains on many levels an outsider. He effectively lives life wearing a mask: an easy-going expressionlessness, which he adopted to deflect prejudices around him, or perhaps to simply reduce life's complications and be an everyday guy.
As portrayed by Wang with seemingly effortless skill, Joey remains enigmatic to say the least.
Joey's partner Cody (Trevor St. John) is equally a tangle of unspoken, subsurface complexities. He is the biological father of their son. And here the story gets complicated, although the film's 169-minute running time provides ample space for long pauses for reflection.
Through a sudden tragedy, Cody dies. His will, however, grants custody of their son to Cody's sister and her husband, not to his partner Joey. (Presumably the will was written before his partnership with Joey began, back when Cody was still living an ostensibly hetero life with his wife, before she died during childbirth.) This throws Joey into what is any parent's nightmare, where a child is suddenly taken away, seemingly forever.
Yet the film doesn't pander to the tension. It sticks to its slow, metronomic pace as Joey struggles to get legal aid and to figure out what to do. Wang also shoots the scenes sparsely, with a medium focal length, so action comes in and out of the picture and Joey's gaze often rests on things out of the frame, adding to the sense of lost information or things going unspoken.
Yet it also lends In the Family a stylistic freshness often seen with first-time feature film directors. As Wang holds us in rapt attention, not only with his steady pacing, but with the hard realism of the screenplay, the characters retain a coldness that never breaks. Even Joey's unassuming name creates an unpleasant, very subtle chill to the dialogue, as if others are speaking to someone not entirely their equal. (Look here, Joey, they might say.) It's another case in the film of Southern politeness underscoring a certain hostility, of codifying people.
And that's where Wang is intent on leaving us. Despite a number of plot twists, In the Family is more about its constant blanks and dead time, its silence and inert camerawork, which require a viewer to fill in the gaps with one's own perceptions of what's happening. The rewards are there, even after Wang takes us through Joey's battle of attrition. Yet the director breaks the slow tension with the odd friendly character and quick plot summary – acting as unnecessary aid stations. Really we just want to get more into Wang's and his character Joey's thoughts, however hard that process might be.
Given the talent he shows in this artfully minded directorial debut, In the Family could have been that much more difficult and yet that much more rewarding.
In the Family
- Directed and written by Patrick Wang
- Starring Patrick Wang and Trevor St. John
- Classification: PG
In the Family opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, and in Saskatoon and London, Ont., on June 8. Other Canadian cities to follow (see inthefamilythemovie.com for details).