"Stay with it," a friend advised me about the drama "In the Family," which has its Madison premiere at 7 tonight at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as the final film in its fall Spotlight Cinema series.
I'm glad I did.
At first, star-writer-director Patrick Wang's debut film feels like it's going to be something of a slog; it's nearly three hours long, and starts off very slowly, showing the ordinary daily lives of a couple and their son in rural Martin, Tennessee. It's a gay couple; Joey (Wang) met Cody (Trevor St. John) and his infant son Chip (Sebastian Banes) six years ago, after Cody's wife died in an accident.
And then, about a half-hour into the movie, something happens, and you can feel "In the Family" shift into gear. Cody dies in an accident, and his sister Sally (Park Overall) abruptly takes Chip away from Joey. Cody had written a will before he met Joey giving her custody in the event of his death, and Joey suddenly finds himself without any legal claim on his own son.
It could be the basis for a traditional, heart-wrenching family drama, but Wang tells the story in such an unexpected and interesting way. His background is in theater, not film, and at first I thought the film betrayed the limitations of his film experience. The camera is often fixed in place, characters moving in and out of frame, scenes seemingly going on for too long.
But, over time, these limitations start to feel like strengths, and we start to feel like we're in the room with these characters as their living their lives. Wang steadfastly resists to cast any party as either a hero or a villain; everyone's flawed and complicated. What's especially interesting is how Wang frames himself as Joey; he's often shown from behind, or almost off-camera. In one scene, where Joey bangs on Sally's front door and the police are called in, we see the action entirely through the frosted front-door window looking out.
The upshot is that, while Joey's sexual orientation and race are hardly ever mentioned (one lawyer sniffs that "no judge would ever legitimize this kind of thing," but that's as close as anyone gets), those differences hang in the air, unspoken. Finally, the film ends with a lengthy, gripping court deposition in which Joey, finally fully lit and in the center of the screen, eloquently makes his claim to be Chip's father. It's a powerful moment that the whole film has been subtly building towards.
There are so many good film schools out there, and so many relatively easy ways to get a film made, that it's rare to see a film that's made by a true outsider perspective. Wang's debut is just such a film, and it makes him a filmmaker to watch. And its presence on the MMOCA Spotlight Cinema schedule underscores how important series like that and the on-campus film series are to Madison, because they likely wouldn't be seen on the big screen here otherwise. Tickets are $7, free for MMOCA members.