Friday, June 1, 2012

In the Family (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

In the Family 

Every once in a while there is a film that I come upon with no preconceptions, one that confronts and catches me off guard with a Zen sense of surprise. A genuine aha!  Patrick Wang's "In the Family" is one such film: a meditation so lucid and uncluttered it is like peering into a clear pool.

The film concerns a male couple Cody (Trevor St. John) and Joey (Patrick Wang). The two care for Cody's six year old son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) from a previous marriage. Cody and Joey are a patient and progressive couple in Tennessee. Despite their family dynamic which is in the minority, they are social, comfortable and well inside the Status Quo as far as connections. Cody is a teacher and Joey is an architect. Together they radiate a sense of softness and tranquility without discord.

Then the unthinkable happens.

Cody has a car accident and Joey is forced to carry on with Chip. What follows is a somewhat Kafkaesque battle for parental rights and anti-gay prejudice that is never heavy handed or stereotypical. Joey assumes the role of primary parent to Chip when out of the blue, Joey is informed of his utter absence of civil rights. This film does not pander, persuade or pontificate. It is a starkly photographed, refreshingly ascetic experience that eschews embellishment, melodrama or score, but triumphs as meaning on screen. 

Patrick Wang is a wonder as Joey, showing a person simply as he appears without any distraction, noise or echo. Joey is just Joey. Perhaps Patrick Wang IS Joey. Whatever the case, there is little artifice here.

You will get the jolt that this is as close to life as cinema gets, to bravely include the everyday pauses and blank stares into nothing, from the off-putting staggers to the spasms that our lives at any given moment might contain.

You don't often see such bold detail in behavior here as illustrated by Cody's mother Gloria (Elaine Bromka) who sadly and eerily assumes that Joey is an actual alien from outer space. She immediately pressures him to wash the dishes. "Well," Gloria says, "you told me he was a good worker."

Joey is calm and self-deprecating, always willing to give anyone a fair shake, even Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) who is consumed with hostile conventions. The most jarring events happen to Joey (including a police interrogation). Still, he remains steadfast in his belief of family cohesion. Moreover, he believes in the inherent goodness of his fellow man.
A highlight is actor Eugene Brell as Mr. Robinson, a lawyer who is engaged against Joey in his custody battle. Robinson may well be a man you love to hate, but he is no black-mustached villain. Robinson is as human as everyone else in the film. There are no boogeymen or adversaries here. The only obstacles are the outdated beliefs that hinder us. 

With a running time of two hours and forty-nine minutes, it is tempting to wish for a cut or two, especially when Joey's lawyer, a Matlock-ish Mr. Grant (Matthew Boston) tells him to talk about himself, to go back, again and again. Yet, how better to make a statement than to show an actual chunk of life as it occurs? Joey is constantly recalling the ghost of Cody, sometimes lovingly, sometimes not. These scenes are stirring and require space to breathe and flow. And despite its sparseness of detail, even music has its own presence and spirit, never taking away, but complementing gesture and action. Ultimately, every nuance and moment is necessary, adding up to a complete life story.

"In the Family" is a commitment, but once  you take the first breath in your seat, Joey and Chip will fill your eyes with an authentic richness that is near impossible to run from. This is a film without an Agenda. It is simply part of a mirror showing us as we are in all manner of ways, be they hesitant, scared, resolute or secure.

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