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Film Thursday: In the Family
A belated plea on behalf of an indie gem

“In the Family”

There’s a movie playing at the Carlton right now called In the Family, and I’d urge anyone who cares about film to go see it before it leaves. Unfortunately, that means seeing it tonight, as it’ll be gone by Friday. (I’d have written about it sooner but I only caught up with it myself yesterday.) I don’t want to overpraise In the Family — it’s modest in scale, and almost whisper-quiet — but it has a real impact, and its sensibility is so different from most other movies that it feels like it arrived from a parallel universe. The writer-director, Patrick Wang, financed it entirely with his own money, and when he wasn’t able to land a distributor, he paid to have it screen in New York last November. I don’t know if the move paid off financially, but it paid off strategically, resulting in a rave review from The New York Times, followed by raves from several other publications. Since then, Wang has been touring the film around the U.S., and now Vagrant Films has brought it to Toronto.

Set in modern-day Tennessee, the movie is about a custody battle waged over a  six-year-old boy. The boy, Chip, has two dads: his biological father, Cody (Trevor St. John), and Cody’s partner, the gentle, mild-mannered contractor Joey (Wang). The three live together as a perfectly average, upper-middle-class family, but when Cody is killed in a car accident, questions arise as to what he would’ve wanted for his son. It turns out Cody named his sister (Kelly McAndrew) as Chip’s guardian. Joey is certain Cody simply never got around to updating his will, but the sister isn’t convinced, and she and her husband — both of whom presumably have issues with Joey’s lifestyle — take Chip away to live with them. The rest of the film is about Joey’s efforts to get his boy back.

That plot description might sound like a hopelessly earnest gay-rights plea or a Lifetime Movie of the Week, but In the Family doesn’t really resemble either of those things. One of its most distinctive features — which I’ve deliberately put off mentioning — is its running time: nearly three hours. (Wait, keep reading!) Wang reportedly insisted on that length, presumably at the expense of landing a distributor, and his instincts were right. The movie needs that time. Part of what makes it distinctive is that it leaves in the small, observational details most other movies leave out, details that bring us closer to the people onscreen. I’ve never been a fan of length for length’s sake, and I can’t stand movies that force us to watch actors slurp soup for minutes on end, so let me be clear: there is no soup slurping in In the Family. When Wang lets a shot or a scene play long, there’s always something compelling going on to justify it. Wang comes from the theatre — in interviews, he freely admits he didn’t know much about film when he started — and he has a stage director’s ability to hold an audience’s attention simply. At times, a character in one part of the frame might be doing something mundane, but a character in another part of the frame will be doing something interesting, and then the roles reverse without the camera even moving. All the while, Wang lets you chose who to look at, and he uses your seesawing focus to pull off unexpected emotional effects. A scene in which Chip tries to cheer his dad up by pouring him a beer, for instance, would almost certainly be cloying if Wang had used close-ups, but by letting it happen uninterrupted and without the usual emphasis — Joey sits in the foreground, unawares, while Chip prepares the beer behind him — it gets to you. You feel as if you’re privy to a genuine, unforced moment.

The danger in Wang’s style is that it can feel too stage-bound, and there are certainly moments here that could do with a bit more looseness. But by working with what he knows, Wang not only avoids dumb rookie mistakes, he brings a truly unique, personal vision to the screen. There are scenes and conversations here I’ve never seen in a movie before, and the people onscreen continually surprised me with their complexity, the way people can in life. The nearest approximation I can think of is an Alice Munro story, but Wang is more optimistic, more determined to see the good in people, than Munro. His own character, Joey, takes this same humanist approach to life — he’s both upbeat and unfailingly kind, but without any sense of Pollyanna virtue attached to him. For awhile, I found him almost exasperating in his reluctance to get angry about things, but gradually he won me over to his way of thinking. The whole movie has that effect — you leave it reassessing some of your own most deeply entrenched attitudes.

Wang is, at least initially, maybe the weakest link amongst the actors. He’s not remotely bad, but his line readings often have that methodical, over-rehearsed quality stage actors sometimes bring with them to a film. That said, he’s always highly likeable, and by the end his slight stiffness seemed more a part of the character than a weakness. As for the other performers, they’re uniformly excellent. The most notable, perhaps, is Broadway veteran Brian Murray as Joey’s lawyer. When we first meet him, he’s essentially auditioning Joey as a client — he wants to know if Joey is someone he can work with — and his forceful yet gentle grilling is mesmerizing. Murray suggests a man with a lifetime of wisdom under his belt — you hear it in his voice and see it in his face — and, like Joey, you want to listen to him. There’s a remarkable moment where he poses three questions for Joey while writing them down on a piece of paper. Though the point of the exercise isn’t clear until later, the way Murray performs the scene, it feels inexplicably charged with mystery and meaning. Murray has only a handful of scenes, but they’re pivotal ones, and they add up to a complete — and completely perfect — performance.

I’ve deliberately avoided revealing too much about In the Family because I want viewers to have the same pleasures of discovery I had. If you can’t get to it tonight, keep an eye out for it on VOD. Watching it, you get a glimpse of what movies could be if young filmmakers stopped chasing Hollywood, if they just eschewed all the preconceived modes. It’s one of the most unusual, affecting indie debuts ever, and a small gem.

____

Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.

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