Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Patrick Wang multi-hyphenates all over In the Family, about a gay man—not that he's ever defined/confined as such—whose husband dies, throwing into legal turmoil his relationship with his husband's biological son whom he has raised for 6 years. It's neither political jeremiad nor fiery melodrama, though. It's a mild-mannered, naturalistic procedural about a homophobic society—not just the heartland but federal law—working against family values and the integration of non-traditional relationships into extended family groups.
The scene where Patrick Wang, as Joey Williams, gets the news that his husband has died encapsulates the film's style. It's dark out, and Wang cuts to outside the hospital and up a bit, looking down through the windows at the three actors: Joey with his back to us, the doctor facing us but totally inexpressive, and the kind nurse in profile, unable to keep from revealing her concern. We can tell by the noise that cars are approaching, and suddenly three cars fly by in quick succession, sensed only by their lights zooming across the windows and the sounds roaring.
A lot of In the Family's central scenes are shot like that, with barriers between the audience and the primary action, a habit that thaws as the film reaches its possible reconciliation. Except for his amateur audio—whenever someone’s off-screen, even if they’re still half in-frame, it sounds like they’re out in the garage—Wang masters the material. He shoots like an unfussy Ozu admirer, happy to find the perfect low, static shot to capture a lengthy scene but just as willing to cut to a different angle when it gets too showy. Wang doesn’t bend the film to his camera but vice versa. The camera swings between two one-shots like Contempt for one scene, and it shakes powerfully in another. Meanwhile, flashbacks flesh out the history and augment the icy present to powerful effect. Patrick Wang is one promising director.
As a writer of dialogue and actor, however, Wang’s would-be naturalism is wanting. Like so much mumblecore, In the Family is full of artifice masquerading as the way real people speak. It’s not, even if Joey is slow on the uptake. Which is another issue. Like that irritating trope where characters could easily solve their problems if they had an ounce of common sense, Joey is cripplingly polite, which seems to me an easy hurdle to get over. But no. He’s content not to insist on hospital visitation for his dying husband, because the nurse told him so. He can’t even tell her he’s the patient’s husband, relying instead on things like “This is our son,” you know, the way real people speak. And his family members also don’t stick up for him, which is really nit-picking considering the film is about these same family members demanding custody of their nephew and using a six-year-old will to do so. It makes for terrific dramaturgy, illustrating the way immoral laws also need assholes to enforce them, but the motivations aren’t really fleshed out.
Which is maybe the point, considering Joey doesn’t know their motivations either. It’s not about why this is happening. It’s about that it is happening, that it can happen. Gay marriage isn’t just about weddings or even principle. It’s about family.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 2:57 AM