At close to three hours long, In the Family isn’t exactly effortless to sit through. It’s slowly paced, and while the plot is dramatic, it’s difficult to understand why it’s so long. This isn’t to say it’s an ineffective film. It’s the opposite, in fact.
The compelling story concerns Joey Williams, a gay man fighting for custody rights to the son he and his recently deceased partner, Cody (Trevor St. John), have been parenting together. First-time director Patrick Wang, who also stars as Joey, skillfully creates a world the audience is both invited into but also kept at a distance. Through story, interesting camerawork, and a simple mise-en-scène, In the Family makes up for its extreme running time.
Perhaps the reason for In the Family’s length is the film’s willingness to depict almost everything that happens to Joey in real time. Not much, with the notable exception of Cody’s funeral, is left to the audience’s imagination.
The film opens with a study of Joey and Cody’s Tennessee homelife with their impossibly adorable young son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Cody works as a teacher and Joey as a contractor. When Cody gets into a car accident and is rushed to the hospital, the first signs of Joey’s eventual troubles emerge. Joey isn’t allowed to see Cody; he’s not legally considered family. After Cody passes away from his injuries, Joey and Chip go on with their lives as normally as possible. A few weeks later, Joey approaches Cody’s sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), asking for help in figuring out bills. Eileen then tells him that Cody had a will written out years ago that left her all of Cody’s assets as well as Chip in her custody. Cody’s family takes charge of the boy and leaves Joey with a restraining order.
Wang plays Joey with heart and a realistic sense of bewilderment. Joey handles his problems as gracefully as can be expected, but the flashbacks to the early days of his and Cody’s relationship shed light on how much Joey is affected by his circumstances. Wang’s fascinating camerawork adds to the film’s complexity. Often placed off-center of the action or behind a character while they are speaking, the camera sneaks around the characters, trying to listen in on private family conversations.
Issues about civil rights are clearly an important part of the In the Family, but Wang is careful to let the spotlight shine on Joey’s predicament. The film could have easily delved into a myriad of social issues, including race, as Joey is Asian-American and Cody and Chip are white. Wang’s decision to let those issues speak for themselves allows the film to impact the audience in a way that is both restrained and unique.