A powerful study of a gay man seeking custody of the child he raised with his recently deceased partner, “In the Family” marks a remarkable debut by legit writer-director-actor Patrick Wang. A beautifully written and performed plea for understanding on hot-button moral and legal issues, the pic is perfectly pitched to engage the emotions and provoke discussion among fair-minded viewers of all persuasions. Lengthy running time reps a commercial challenge, but Wang justifies every minute. Self-funded, self-distribbed drama should attract the positive word of mouth and critical kudos to broaden its release from a single Gotham screen on Nov. 4.
Surely the first film about an Asian-American man involved in a same-sex relationship in Tennessee, the tale recalls the social realism of John Cassavetes with long takes in which silence and the faces of those in emotional pain are as potent as words.
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Pic’s stationary-camera aesthetic and naturalistic tone are carefully established in the opening images showing Joey Williams (Wang) engaging in delightful morning play with Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), a lively 6-year-old. Slowly, it is revealed that Joey’s long-term partner is Chip’s biological father, schoolteacher Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), who is shortly thereafter killed in an offscreen car accident.
A home renovator and restorer of old books, Joey assumes he can continue to care for Chip; Cody’s family has embraced Joey ever since the two men’s relationship (shown in flashback) began, seven months after Chip’s mother died in childbirth. But Cody’s will, which predates his time with Joey, has named the boy’s aunt Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) and uncle Dave (Peter Hermann) as his guardians. Suddenly, a restraining order is taken out against Joey, and Chip is removed to Eileen and Dave’s care.
The film’s winning ingredient is the manner in which Joey approaches the daunting task of obtaining custody. Without any crusading speeches, Wang portrays Joey as a decent, ordinary guy who doesn’t understand legal and financial complexities, and simply wants to get Eileen and Dave to talk about the situation. How he works toward this with the help of wealthy, retired lawyer Paul Hawks (Brian Murray) will move many viewers with its dignity and restraint.
Using only 300 shots, several of which exceed 10 minutes, Wang’s meticulously modulated storytelling never flags, and he elicits excellent performances from an ensemble consisting mainly of thesps with notable backgrounds in theater. Child actor Brodziak is marvelous as the clever, high-spirited boy at the center of the storm.
“In the Family” was lensed in Yonkers, N.Y., and its very few exteriors effectively substitute for the well-chosen Tennessee setting, where the attitudes of many characters may surprise auds bearing preconceived notions about Southern bigotry. Lenser Frank Barrera’s subtle lighting and the simple yet effective work by production designer John El Manahi and costume designer Michael Bevins couch extraordinary emotional terrain in the most normal of surroundings. Other tech work is pro.