New Yorker Films // 2011 // 169 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 14th, 2013
A near masterpiece of nuance and understanding.
Joey (Patrick Wang) and his partner, Cody (Trevor St. John, My Soul to Take), are in a committed relationship, living in a small town in Tennessee. They both adore the latter's biological son Chip (Sebastian Barnes) and dote on him hopelessly. When Cody is involved in a tragic car accident, Joey soon learns that his will has left guardianship and care of his "child," along with the rest of his estate, to his sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew, Everybody's Fine) and her husband Dave (Peter Hermann, Our Idiot Brother). At first, all is as well as can be expected. Then the family pulls the typical "best interest of the kid" routine. Slowly, however, it appears that long simmering prejudices may have predicated their decision. With support from those around him, including an idealistic retired lawyer named Paul Hawkes (Brian Murray, Bob Roberts), Joey decides to fight for what is his. Unfortunately, it will be an uphill battle.
Just in time for the wake-up call delivered by the Supreme Court of the United States re: gay marriage, partner rights, and legal protections, comes Patrick Wang's devastatingly brilliant In the Family. For many, the aforementioned plot synopsis will sound like one of those sloppy, soapy Hollywood hissy fits (Losing Isaiah, The Help) which takes a hot button social topic and reduces it to a series of overzealous rants or jokes. No dialogue can be spoken without some major pro/con talking point being added into the mix, no scene or scenario plays out organically, or as it would in the real world. Instead, these lame Lifetime-lite movies make a mockery of their controversial subjects by avoiding the nuances to produce a sledgehammer approach to understanding. Not In the Family. Wang, whose worked in theater up to this point, delivers the kind of portrait of everyday life that says more about the subject under consideration than any speech or screed.
The main issue here is the rights of a same sex partner in a tragic situation. When Cody dies, he leaves behind a legal conundrum that even a revised will may not have solved. For some in the audience, the answer is obvious, since their hidden homophobia makes pronouncements like "what's best for the child" seem more specious than sympathetic. Indeed, everything about In the Family asks for our preconceived notions about what is acceptable-morally, religiously, interpersonally-to be swept away as we watch how reality treats our characters. Joey and Cody are loving, nurturing parents. They are also gay. Apparently, in some portion of their small town, that's no big deal. For others, said status demands redress and remedy. All throughout the first two acts of the film, we watch as what was normal and natural turned into the questionable and the concerning.
Through it all, Wang keeps his camera unobtrusive and observational. He's not out to make his directorial presence known, just capture the glimpses of living necessary to turn his otherwise simple story into a far more universal maxim. He gets his actors to perform in a wholly naturalistic fashion, from his young co-star to the most ancillary walk-on. There will be those who think that In the Family is self-important and preachy, but nothing that Wang does suggests this. Instead, he creates a narrative in which some contemporary civil rights concerns just happen to be at the core of the conflict. Toward the end, when Joey is speaking out and standing up for himself, we wait for the big bravura moment, that scene where a monologue becomes the meaning of the entire previous running time. Instead, In the Family does what it excels at-highlighting an issue by showing how it plays out in the real world, not on some pundit drive talking head excuse for news as entertainment.
The Blu-ray presentation of In the Family is as exquisite as the film itself. Taken directly from the digital elements and stunning in its depth and detail, the 1.85:1 1080p image almost leaps off the TV screen at times. Sonically, the same thing applies. There is both a PCM 2.0 mix and a 5.1 Dolby Digital track that offers an interesting take on their audio aspects of the film. Wang apparently spent lots of time tuning the aural issues into something to support the drama, not detract from it. The stereo situation favors the dialogue. The multichannel presentation puts everything into a whirlwind of life as its lived, complete with ambient noises and found musical "scoring." As for the added content, we are treated to several "video essays" (read: featurettes which use sequences from the film to illustrate everything from major themes to discussions on framing and post-production). There is also a minor making-of, a trailer, and a booklet containing some excellent observations on the film.
When you consider what it could have been, or what others would have done with similar material, In the Family takes its place as a contemporary masterpiece. It doesn't struggle with its social issues, it celebrates them in a way that outline the artform that is the modern motion picture.
Not guilty. A terrific little gem.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 169 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Video Essays