Writer/director/actor Patrick Wang's background in theater and dramaturgy is on high display in his debut feature, In the Family, an acutely felt, altogether devastating family drama as intimate and affecting as it is sprawling and untamed. Nearly three hours in length, the film is characterized by carefully blocked, deeply focused scenes that unfold naturally, if perhaps uncomfortably, beholden only to life's often overlapping, conflicting, and overwhelming emotions. The premise, concerning adoptive rights in a homophobic society, is unique for button-pushing potential, though Wang's aims here are political only inasmuch as the political intersects with the moral. With no shortage of confidence, In the Family is remarkable for sidestepping bullet-point statements altogether to instead focus on the day-to-day causes and effects of our prejudices and the regulatory systems (social contracts, employment guidelines, family bonds) we frequently submit ourselves to.
Wang plays Joey Williams, lover of Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) and surrogate father to Cody's six-year-old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), who's never known a life outside of that with his two fathers. Although they live in conservative Tennessee, they've found mostly seamless acceptance among their hetero familial and work environments, but when Cody dies in a car accident, Joey's status as Chip's second father is called into question, sparked (and backed up in court) by a legal document as old as Chip, in which all of Cody's belongings, as well as Chip, are willed to his sister. From here, things get worse before they get better.
The leisurely yet assured pacing allows the film to make its points through acute reinforcement, delivering a fault-proof human rights debate without once being aggressively or even obviously argumentative. By showcasing its political threads as incidental, it lends them that much more gravitas. In many ways, In the Family is a commentary on hate—that against a foreigner, or a sexual other, or any kind of group—and the ways that hate legitimizes itself and hides inside accepted routines or public policies, but it's also more about love, and understanding, and putting everything aside and talking about “the big stuff” when necessary. Wang's line readings have an assured everydayness, but there's also poetry in his voice, and when he not only asks the big questions, but then proceeds to actually answer some of them, it's so morally invigorating you might just feel the world tremble.
Wang camouflages his emotional punches in the minutiae of daily life, and his uniformly excellent performers suggest a sprawling cast of players in an expansive, obsessively controlled Charlie Kaufman universe—a finely composed ecosystem in constant flux. The film waxes its every moment into a crystalline pocket of time, finding the universal in the microcosmic, and always deepening itself with flabbergasting levels of imbued details. In his exquisitely rigorous commitment to his minimalist, downplayed style, Wang reproduces the chokehold effect of the phone call/hallway sequence of Taxi Driver, and there isn't a moment that lacks that rarely touched level of cinematic intimacy or sense of happened-upon truth. Wang's behemoth creation has already enjoyed a notable impact in its limited theatrical release, which justly speaks to its honesty and universality. The film bears a unique distinctness even as Wang's creative energy parallels some of the same essences as the work of Abbas Kiarostami, John Cassavetes, and Kelly Reichardt, to name just a few major filmmakers who I suspect would appreciate what this unprecedented new talent has achieved.