Only the most attentive cinephiles would have noticed last week's emergence of the critically adored indie drama In the Family on the Regal Village Square 18 calendar. Maybe that was intentional. Everything about this film is understated and subtle. But that doesn't mean it doesn't pack an emotional wallop.
The immediate talking point for In the Family is parenthood for same-sex couples. But at its core, the movie is about the changing dynamic of the American family. Though its central characters include two men (one an Asian-American who speaks with a twang) in a committed relationship and their 6-year-old son, never once is anything overtly political or sociocultural mentioned. In face, no one ever throws around the words "gay," "homosexual," "queer" or the like. As I said -- understated.
Cody (Trevor St. John) and Joey (Patrick Wang, also the film's director) happily live in a Tennessee suburb, leading successful but busy lives as a math teacher and contractor, respectfully. They are also raising a child, Chip (Sebastian Banes), who clearly loves the hell out of his two dads. Cody had Chip with his wife shortly before she died; seven months later, he finds himself kissing Joey, hired a year previous to build hetero Cody's home. There's never any official de-closeting or sexual discovery, as you'd likely expect out of your typical gay or indie drama looking to milk as much drama, or exploit any cultural expectations, out of the circumstance. In fact, the moment happens in a touching flashback, as Cody introduces Joey to his favorite musician, renowned singer-songwriter Chip Taylor.
And flashbacks are necessary due to a major plot point: One morning, Cody dies in a car accident. Only here does any political subtext rise to the surface at this point, as the hospital initially treats Joey as a mere friend rather than a family member, and, more important to the general story, Joey is told Cody's will, which wasn't updated after he met Joey, left everything to his sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew). From there, Eileen swiftly claims everything belonging to her brother -- including Chip, which sends the grieving Joey in a deeper tailspin and on a seemingly futile quest to find a red-state/small-town lawyer to take the case only he believes he has.
All Joey has left are the personal and professional friendships he's nutured by the sheer force of his Southern charm. You see, he's used to both death and being abandoned -- in one of the film's few narrative leaps, Joey reveals both his real and foster parents died before he became an adult -- and so each one of his relationships, including the ones with his coldhearted inlaws, is worth fighting for, which he earnestly demonstrates during a deposition. The protracted scene represents the de facto climax of In the Family. Don't expect any Kramer Vs. Kramer-type fireworks, but the scene eventually rewards your patience.
The film is nearly three hours long; two different sets of couples bailed during a matinee last weekend. Its pacing mirrors that of Southern living, but it also paints an intimate, uber-realistic picture of lives Joey and Cody and their inner circle lead; you feel as if you're in the room with these people as pivotal and meaningful moments in their lives unfurl. At one point, Joey's friend Anne (Eisa Davis) eavesdrops on Chip as he plays an entire lesson on dragons that Joey taped for his legally abducted son. It's another overlong scene, but the longer we listen, the more the relevance and resonance of that tape -- especially for Chip -- is established. Aside from Gus Van Sant's artsier fare, you'd be hard pressed to find a scene like that even in films from major independent studios, which is another reason In the Family is so unique.
Despite those few instances of restlessness, the unassuming, unpretentious and of-the-moment In the Family earns your time and money. But see it quick: The film has its final Las Vegas screening tomorrow night.