Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
"In the Family" is one of the most tender, unique, and humble human epics that I've experienced out of the modern American indie movement of the last couple decades. It is the debut film by Patrick Wang--originally an MIT grad in economics--who wears four hats here as producer, star, director and writer. And it's a brave debut, essentially an "issues" movie that transcends what it's about with uncommon sensitivity and empathy in a story about family and belonging.
We know we're in store for something original when we meet Joey Williams--an Asian-American man in his mid-to-late 30's, born to Asian parents but raised by white folks in a small Tennessee city--and discover that he and his southern drawl are the stars of an American film set below the Mason-Dixon line. It scrambles our cinematic radar in that it's something we so rarely see in the movies. It occurred to me that we're more apt to meeting a real-life Joey Williams than a cinematic one.
That same kind of idea strikes those who meet Joey for the first time in this film. A first encounter is never just a mundane or innocuous one. People regard him, they hear him, they even talk to him, but they don't really meet him on his level as much as they wonder or suspect things about him. And in doing so with a kind of silent "oh, he's...different" this wise film forces its characters as well as its audience to confront their own subtle prejudices.
The first thing that anyone in this film says to Joey is "Dad". It's spoken by Chip (Sebastian Banes), the 6 yr-old biological son of Cody (Trevor St. John), Joey's partner, on an average morning before school for this young, happy family. Chip is a moppet of a kid, bursting at the seams with spontaneity and life. But the only mother he's ever known are his two dads. That's because Cody's wife died while giving birth to Chip. Joey came into their lives doing contracting work on their home. About 7 months after she passed, Cody and Joey sparked, fell in love, and have lived and raised Chip together.
I can tell you that Cody dies in a sudden car wreck because it comes less than fifteen minutes into this nearly 3-hour story. His will, created at the time of his wife's passing but before he and Joey were involved, was never updated. It leaves everything to Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) and that means full custody of Chip.
What follows are a series of heartbreaking scenes that show how Cody's death tears this family apart, while equally heart-rending flashbacks reveal the lovely construction of it from the beginning. It seems to make sense to us and Joey that Cody would have wanted Chip to stay with him, but Eileen is dead serious about following the will and a rift grows between the two, leading to Eileen's family keeping Chip after Joey drops him off to be with them on Thanksgiving. It's the last time they see each other.
A more conventional film would target Cody's side of the family as villains. Not so here with a set of characters who feel more like actual human beings we know. People with complicated thoughts and confusing feelings, not just characters with "traits" or quirks or predictable one-liners guiding them. From what we gather, Eileen, her husband Dave (Peter Hermann) and Cody's folks are good, decent people. But what exactly do they think of Joey? The fascination with them lies more in their actions than in their words, since this very insightful screenplay allows for much to be implied beneath the surface. A Hollywood movie would be all too happy to show scenes involving pontifications about homosexuality and same sex marriage, words that go without saying here.
That's part of what makes this a great film: the best service it can possibly render the struggle for gay civil rights is by not actually making it about gay civil rights at all. It takes a much more personal approach: one father is taken from his son by tragic circumstances, but the other father is taken away from his son by choice, and no matter what laws or policies or wills have to say about it, in our gut it just doesn't feel right that Chip and Joey should be separated without even being asked how they feel about it.
Joey's latest project as a contractor finds him working on the upscale home of retired attorney Paul Hawks, played by South African Shakespearean thesp Brian Murray, in a performance that takes an already very good film to another level. Knowing and wise, his advice to Joey is to begin to think less about the law and more about what can be done around it.
A more standard movie would lead to a dramatic courtroom showdown. This movie takes that idea and flips it on its head in a 35-minute deposition scene--in a small room featuring Joey and Paul, Eileen and her husband and their attorney--where Joey is finally made whole as an individual to all of us as he recounts his painful younger life as an orphan, is degraded by the opposing attorney, and talks about real family values. Like much of the film, this scene happens in long, patient, static shots that invite us to project ourselves into them rather than being told through editing who, what or where we should be looking. One of the most powerful scenes of any 2012 film, Joey's decency and his goodness achieve a magnanimity that is deeply moving.
"In the Family" challenges the way a movie tells itself. The camera is stationary all throughout this picture, much like Edward Yang's stillness in his family epic "Yi Yi" from 2000. Patrick Wang makes a series of bold and interesting choices here that show us how alone Joey is in the aftermath of Cody's death, and how solitary a figure he is in all those shots where we only see his backside, which serve to focus on how people regard and treat him. In other shots, he is made to feel small, like when he goes to pick up Chip and learns that the family has taken him away. At the front door of Cody's mother's house, Joey appears dwarfed by it and by his red pick-up truck in the foreground.
Yes, this is a long film. And it's an imperfect one, too. Maybe there are a couple scenes I would have shortened, and another scene I would have removed, and a couple experimental angles Wang uses with his camera that I might have changed, yet, the moral force of this movie's goodness resonates so profoundly that I think "perfection" only wishes it could achieve such gravitas.