Back in November 2011, a testament to cinematic tenacity unspooled on a single Manhattan screen. Like many non-Manhattanites, I know this because I read it in the Times, which published a rave review of Patrick Wang's In the Family while noting it had been rejected by thirty film festivals. Eventually, Wang's persistence of self-distribution got the film around the country, in front of plenty more critics, and now onto home video, where it will live on as a humble, quietly devastating historical marker of a turning point in gay civil rights.
As the Times promised, there's no film quite like In the Family, which was no doubt rejected by so many festivals out of hand due to its 169-minute length. But there's not a single expendable minute in it, each moment contributing to the engrossing spell cast by writer-director-star Wang. Set in Tennessee, where gay Asian-American Joey Williams (Wang) both clearly belongs and yet is treated at times as incongruous, In the Family explores the horrible undoing of a family and—in carefully placed flashbacks—the beautiful making of one, both in existentially baffling accidental ways. Building contractor Joey and his partner Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), a teacher, are raising a six-year-old moppet named Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) until circumstances remove Cody from the idyllic family picture. Though one is an adult and the other a child, Joey and Chip are equally blindsided and baffled by this development, and the unfeeling societal chain reaction that compounds grief by separating father and son.
Drawing on his background in theater, Wang proves equally adept and sensitive with dialogue and wordless expression. Wang's most canny choice is his use of the family's kitchen as a subjective time-and-space-travelling device to illuminate relationships and our forced perspective on reality. At the story's outset, the intact family buzzes about the kitchen, though an absorbed Joey warms his seat at the breakfast table, foretelling regret at not cherishing every moment of bliss—not that Wang would ever explicitly make such a point. In the film's most powerful scene, Joey and Chip return to the kitchen without Cody, Joey sitting in the same place in a catatonia while the resilient child serves himself a soda and his father a beer. After Chip too departs, we start to get used to the idea that Joey is alone in this heaven-turned-hell, but then Wang matter-of-factly gives us a reverse angle on the kitchen when Joey, still in that chair, hosts a trio of female friends who are his devoted support system in his time of need.
In the Family is smart that way, and others, and while it has some of the rough edges one might expect of a true American indie, Wang mostly knows better than to press buttons (beyond the casting of adorable li'l Brodziak, who's astonishingly naturalistic). Discussion of dragons gets a fair amount of screen time, but to no apparent symbolic end, just as a plausible detail on which a father can educate and thereby bond with his son. If there's symbolism, it's in the never-underlined motif of paperwork as an ever-present fellow traveller through life. Joey contends with blueprints and mounds of mail and legal documents that place demands on his time, but he also chooses to expend time on paper as craft; he long ago learned the skill of binding books, a suitable reflection of his unconscious ability to foster individual and communal relationships.
There's an insistent, inevitable movement to Wang's narrative, which neither hurries nor dallies as Joey gracefully bears bureaucratic, discriminatory indignities and explores his options with a kindly retired lawyer (South African Shakespearean Brian Murray), a client of Joey's who quickly recognizes his generous heart. As the story develops, Joey finds himself at odds with Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), her husband Dave (Peter Hermann), and Cody's mother Sally (Park Overall, who was born and raised in Tennessee)—but Wang plainly understands motivations and attitudes rather than ever choosing to demonize.
On paper, In the Family is an "issue movie," dealing with the legal woes of unmarried gay couples and child-custody issues in an imperfect family-court system. But in practice, it's a made-to-scale love story and a thoughtful family drama. In other words, it's a true rarity of contemporary cinema.
"In the Family LLC" has created a terrific special edition for In the Family. The digital-to-digital transfer preserves the look Wang achieved on a RED camera. The picture is clearly calibrated to Wang's exact specifications, in terms of contrast and color. Black level is good and detail excellent, with the occasional hint of banding being the only digital artifact. Audio comes in two flavors: a lossless PCM stereo track and a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Go for the former (pre-select this option, which is not the default): the PCM mix not only has the benefit of being lossless, but also has a more pleasingly natural feel. With a gentle drama like In the Family, wraparound sound isn't a priority; the PCM mix has a proper balance and ultimately a fuller sound than the Dolby Digital one.
Bonus features include four video essays. "Simple Expressions of Absolute Values" by Kevin B. Lee (10:37, HD) provides a critical analysis of the film, particularly in Wang's cinematographic and editing approaches. "The Mirror to Nature" by H.P. Mendoza (7:32, HD) finds writer-director Mendoza (Colma: The Musical) discussing his experiences moderating In the Family Q&A screenings in San Francisco. "A Tour of the Cutting Room" by Patrick Wang (12:52, HD) allows the filmmaker to present and explain deleted scenes, while "Sculpting a Scene" by Patrick Wang (24:59, HD) anatomizes Wang's on-set collaborations and his choices of blocking, camera positions, lenses, and edits to achieve his desired effect.
Rounding out the disc are a "Behind the Scenes" (7:28, HD) montage of audition-tape and outtake footage and the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:43, HD).
The digipack also includes four essays—illustrated with film frames—as liner notes: "A Place at the Table" by Godfrey Cheshire, "Joining the Family" by Michael Guillén, "The Waiting Room" by Dave Boyle, and "Bringing It on Home" by Brian Hu.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer