If life is measured in our ability to achieve understanding with others about our common humanity, then writer-director Patrick Wang’s absorbing debut feature “In the Family” — about a custody battle — has to count as a signature achievement. At nearly three hours it’s long, but in Wang’s pacing estimation, what is time when at stake is a decent character’s threatened sense of being, fairness and belonging?
Wang himself stars as humble Tennessee contractor Joey, whose life partner Cody (Trevor St. John) dies unexpectedly, leaving Joey to care for their 6-year-old son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak). As Wang’s long, unflashy, still-camera takes of real-time detail accrue — Wang’s background in theater is ever apparent – the story turns on an inconvenient detail in Cody’s will, leading to a devastating struggle with Cody’s family.
Deliberate and marked by uncommon grace, “In The Family” manages to feel politically and culturally acute without ever resorting to melodrama, or having to wave banners for issues or causes, except perhaps in its quiet way for a renewed humanism in movies and a return to stories about everyday lives.
By the time Joey’s predicament reaches a tense legal stage, Wang’s careful accumulation of observant, naturalistic performances, eloquent writing and even eccentric sense of mystery achieve a kind of beautifully melancholic transcendence, a trait one typically doesn’t associate with scenes featuring lawyers.
The stylistic stubbornness of “In the Family” won’t be for everyone, but its deeply affecting, empathetic tone is — and these days, a movie so invested in the highs and lows of caring for others can only be a remarkable, cherished thing.
“In the Family.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.