The words "epic" and "indie" don't generally appear in the same sentence, unless the movie is a grand period piece, set in some exotic faraway land, spanning several generations. Foreign films tend to do this particularly well, but it's quite uncommon in American independent cinema. In the Family
is one of those rare films, yet its story takes place in present day Tennessee over the course of just a few months. That singular achievement owes itself primarily to multi-hyphenate wunderkind Patrick Wang, who wrote, directed, and produced this picture, in which he also plays the starring role.
This is a peek into the lives of one slightly atypical family. We know this household is unconventional from the very first scene, as rambunctious six-year-old Chip awakens and runs excitedly into his parents' bedroom, where he's greeted by Dad Joey and Pa Cody. Yes, Chip has two dads, but In the Family
is not a grand political statement about gay marriage (the word "gay" isn't even used once in the film). It's not an in-your-face morality play about homophobia in the South. It's not even about the hotly-debated values of same-sex parenting. More than anything, In the Family
is an exploration of the love between a father and his son, expanding on the poignant territory so elegantly presented in the 1979 Best Picture-winner Kramer vs. Kramer
(full disclosure: my uncle Avery Corman wrote the novel on which Kramer vs. Kramer
is based, although I can't imagine others wouldn't think of that film while watching this one).
Like many indies, In the Family
is a slow burn and takes patience. Wang presents the viewer with quite a bit more character development than some may be used to. But once the curious narrative is established there's no turning away. The compelling nature of the script belies its length of nearly three hours. As I adhere to a strict non-spoiler rule, not much more can be revealed other than that the story unfolds slowly, deliberately, with the father-son bond being the primary issue here.
One of In the Family's
strengths is its character-driven narrative, but the film triumphs in its masterful execution. Production designer John El Manahi's minimalistic sets, soft natural lighting, and neutral color palette of earth tones all serve to put the focus squarely on the actors.
The stunning photography left me shaking my head in wonder, both in its simplicity as well as boldness. Cinematographer Frank Barrera uses handheld only in the occasional flashbacks, sparingly and judiciously sprinkled throughout. Present-day sequences, the bulk of the film, are shot with stationary camera. The actors slowly move through the frame, not the other way around, as if the viewer is a silent observer in the next room. This is enhanced by numerous frame within a frame shots, whereby the performers are viewed with or through doorways and windows. The action is like a painting slowly emerging on a canvas, lending itself to a more theatrical feel. Again, this serves the acting as opposed to enveloping the viewer in the environment in which it takes place. The generous use of shallow focus, a strength of the Red One camera, adds to the intimacy.
In the past I've written a bit about my love for long takes -- scenes with one camera and no edits, lasting anywhere from thirty seconds or so to a few minutes at most. Mean Creek
is one of my all-time favorite indies. The narrative turns dark at one point and what follows is one of the best examples I've ever seen of "less is more." There's a long sequence with no dialogue. It's a classic moment in modern American independent cinema. In the Family
is filled with moments like this -- at one point the actors are onscreen for over 10 minutes without a word being spoken. These scenes work because Wang had complete faith in his cast's (including himself) abilities to say as much, if not more, with their sad eyes and plaintive facial expressions than words can express. There is virtually no score here, save for the occasional original music from composer Johnny Marshall and the songs of Chip Taylor, which hold a special place at the center of the narrative.
In the Family
would be a noteworthy accomplishment even with an adequate cast. But Wang has assembled a group that is clearly passionate about the material. Trevor St. John's heartwrenching portrayal of Pa Cody Hines sets the tone and helps anchor the film. As Dad Joey Williams, writer/director Patrick Wang's nuanced performance is the very definition of award-worthy. His thoughtful delivery and perfectly timed pauses contribute to the portrayal of a father with more patience than any I've ever seen on screen. But young Sebastian Brodziak is the heart and soul of this film, on which everything else rides. Look up "precious" in the dictionary and you may find his face staring out at you. I marveled at the child's ability to carry so many long takes with the apparent professionalism and on-camera ease of a seasoned veteran. He steals every scene he's in.
The classic family relationship epic generally translates well as a character-driven, highly polished movie that spans several decades, or even centuries. They often choose style over substance in an attempt to engage the viewer through the long process. In the Family
initially presents itself, as it slowly unfolds, as such a tale. But it breaks the mold in so many ways, resulting in a groundbreaking effort that raises the bar for what an American independent film can accomplish.
NOTE: After premiering at the Hawaii Film Festival in October 2011, In the Family won the Jury Awards for Best Narrative Feature at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Writer/director Patrick Wang also was honored with the Emerging Filmmaker Awards at both festivals. The film also screened at the Whistler Film Festival, Spokane Film Festival, and Glasgow Film Festival. In the Family received a 2012 Independent Spirit award nomination for Best First Feature.