Joey is a Chinese-American building contractor living in the South with his partner
Cody, who teaches at an elementary school. Sharing their house is Chip, a six-year-old from Cody’s previous marriage. The boy calls them both
“Daddy.” When Cody dies in a car crash, it is discovered that his will, written six years earlier following his wife’s death,
leaves the boy in the care of his sister and her husband.
In the Family is not an easy film. For one, it is long, its stately tempo stretching to
169 minutes. Cinematography is at times murky and claustrophobic –– in a flashback, the stationary camera holds a grieving Cody’s face
with barely room for a nod, as Joey’s movement occasionally breaks the flat rigidity. When Joey enters the dark house after Chip is taken
away, the hip-level camera almost entirely misses his gestures. In the former scene, Cody’s vomiting off-screen eventually justifies the
tight framing, but the viewer is made uncomfortably –– and unfairly –– aware of directorial choices imposed by a shortage of crew, budget or time.
At other times, the same low-budget strategies lead to elegant solutions. When Cody’s sister
summons the police to escort Joey off her porch, the blue and red patrol car lights are seen through the frosted glass of her doorway; snatches
of radio voice overlap as she holds her breath in a white hallway. When Joey is notified of Cody’s death in the hospital, we see him through a high
window, with his back to the camera. The scene flows into a blurred landscape seen through Joey’s eyes as he drives home with Chip from the cemetery.
While some elements make In the Family a challenge to watch, others make it extremely easy. The kid is cute,
the message clear, and no one –– with the exception of one lawyer –– is a villain.
Writer/director/actor Patrick Wang risks painting his Joey character as an “inscrutable Oriental” by opting to let
others show most of the inherent drama –– a smart choice, considering how hard it is to emote when you have to be in control with a small crew and tight schedule.
Cleverly side-stepping expensive shots and logistical nightmares alike, he achieves a degree of measured understatement, revealing Cody and Joey’s relationship
unhurriedly and gradually drawing the viewer in.
The careful pace is broken when Paul Hawks (Brian Murray), a retired lawyer whose mansion Joey is helping restore,
comes to the rescue. This Southern gentleman’s frank confidence in Joey and his plight is almost godlike –– an all-convenient god bringing a happy end to a Greek drama.
When he promises Joey, “The important thing is that you get to speak your mind at the end,” you know that’s exactly what is going to happen. And it does. With sincerity,
winning the hearts of all, including his opponents.
–– Rika Ohara