A Strong Heart Is Broken

Love is the best testimony offered in Patrick Wang’s custody drama

“In the Family” is a sensitive, earnest drama about a gay Asian-American man in Tennessee embroiled in a child custody battle. Written, produced, directed by, and starring the openly gay Patrick Wang, this modest film sometimes wields a heavy hand in broaching legal challenges facing same-sex couples, but its sincerity ensures that its intentions resonate.

The film opens with scenes of domestic tranquility featuring Joey (Wang), his partner Cody (Trevor St. John), and their son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak). Before the end of the first reel, however, Cody dies in an off-screen car accident. Bereft, Joey continues to care for Cody’s son until his late partner’s sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), takes Chip away. Cody’s will, made before he met Joey, named her the child’s legal guardian. When Joey arrives at her home to pick Chip up, the police are called and he is slapped with a restraining order.

We never learn precisely why Eileen is so inflexible regarding Joey’s role in Chip’s life. She may be homophobic or perhaps racist, but the film makes no firm case. Perhaps Wang is being deliberately cagey, asking viewers to fill in the blanks. Despite the lack of specifics, the characters are broadly sketched in either hero or villain archetypes.

Curiously, the word “gay” is never used in the film. All of the characters, including Joey, tiptoe around the relationship between the two men shared. “In the Family” is also chaste when it comes to depicting their physical love, with only a few kisses testifying to their sexuality. Wang may have made the film with broadcast television in mind; in fact, many scenes use a fixed camera, with characters simply walking in and out of the frame. This static visual style is a bit distracting, but it can also be quite effective. When Joey sits silently at his kitchen table after Cody’s funeral, his quiet despair is heartbreakingly palpable.

At other points in the film, Wang proves he does know how to move a camera. One of the best scenes has one of Joey’s friends eavesdropping on Chip as the boy listens to Joey’s recorded voice. The way the camera closes in during this extended scene leaves a powerful impression.

With a running time of nearly three hours, “In the Family” has many lengthy scenes that enrich viewers’ understanding of the characters. Among the strongest are flashbacks to Joey’s early days with Cody. Many of these sequences are filmed with a handheld camera, providing a feeling of intimacy — as when Cody puts on some Chip Taylor music and first kisses Joey. The warmth of this scene makes viewers want to see more of the couple and less of the legal battle at the film’s center.

By the final third of “In the Family,” the custody case has taken over. Joey’s deposition involves tough grilling from Eileen’s attorney and his long, moving monologue that could swing the verdict in his favor, but there is little dramatic suspense here. Still, when Joey describes love being “like a reflex,” it is hard not to feel a swell of emotion.

That’s the strength of Wang’s imperfect film. It all comes from his heart. Wang’s performance in the film is at times stiff in his depiction of grief, but Joey does come off as likable.

“In the Family” needs some serious editing, a better child actor –– as Chip, the young Brodziak is often difficult to understand — and greater complexity, but it is absorbing and there is no lack of warmth and love.

Essentials:

IN THE FAMILY

Directed by Patrick Wang

In the Family LLC

Opens Nov. 4

Quad Cinema

34 W. 13th St.

quadcinema.com

 

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