SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
Life, death, and the heroism of love
In the Family
Sometimes great things arrive with little fanfare. A true labour of love, Patrick Wang’s astonishing directorial debut In the Family (see the excellent website www.inthefamilythemovie.com) has had limited screenings across Canada these past months. Wang, who also produced, scripted and stars in the film, has personally accompanied its progress in order to interact with audiences, hoping eventually to reach 100 cities in North America. Over the course of a long conversation July 7 in Ottawa (I first saw the film earlier in Saskatoon), he spoke about the process and how encouraged he has been by the almost universally positive feedback.
Patrick Wang, who produced, scripted and stars in In the Family, is pictured following a screening at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon June 9, 2012. (G. Schmitz photo)
In the small town of Martin, Tennessee, six-year old Chip (Sebastian Banes) lives happily with his two dads, biological father Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) whose wife died giving birth, and partner of five years Joey Williams (Wang) whom he met through the latter’s work as a construction contractor. In this conservative southern community (actually filmed in Yonkers, NY) their family arrangement seems to be accepted. But when Cody, a schoolteacher, is suddenly killed in a car accident, and an old will, never updated, gives the house and custody of Chip to Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), tragedy threatens these bonds. After Joey drops Chip off at Eileen’s for a Thanksgiving visit, she decides to keep the child. Desperate to get his son back, Joey begins a frustrating pursuit of legal options. He’s been doing a job in the house of a sympathetic retired attorney, Paul Hawks (Brian Murray), who offers his help. Is there a way to restore family, to move beyond the acrimony and anguish of separation?
In the Family doesn’t make a big deal about gay fatherhood or Joey being Asian-American. What matters is that these are recognizable empathetic characters whose quiet lives are interrupted by profoundly human situations. Wang never planned on playing the role, or indeed directing. But in the end he could entrust it to no one else. His portrayal of Joey, loving dad and meticulous craftsman, is extraordinarily sensitive and nuanced. There are scenes, such as when hospital rules prevent him from seeing the dying Cody, or when he listens outside the door to his son in Eileen’s house, that ache with intense yet restrained emotion.
The boy Wang discovered to play the precocious Chip also gives a remarkably unaffected performance.
The whole story unfolds with a rare naturalism and unhurried attention to detail that allows us to feel deeply the circumstances of these lives. Every minute counts, and nothing is stereotyped, forced or manipulated. When I asked Patrick about the quality of the experience to take away, he talked about a state of “joy.” Indeed this altogether exceptional movie opens the heart, leaving one gladdened and grateful for the consummate care that has gone into its gift of cinematic grace.
Travis Fine, director and co-writer of the Tribeca audience award winner Any Day Now, has said that he loves “stories about unlikely heroes finding love in unlikely places.” Based on an actual case in 1970s Los Angeles, the story of two loving dads, Rudy (Alan Cumming) and Paul (Garret Dillahunt), of a would-be adopted son Marco (Isaac Leyva), is also about, in Fine’s words, “the universal pain felt by anyone who has ever had a child they love taken from them against their will.”
Rudy, an aspiring singer who performs in drag, and Paul, a closeted district attorney, make an odd couple. Fourteen-year-old Marco has Down syndrome. This is no ordinary threesome. Marco’s mother is an irresponsible addict living in Rudy’s rundown apartment building. When she abandons him during one of her binges, Rudy is moved to take the child under his care rather than handing him over to the family services system. After the mother agrees to give him temporary custody, Rudy sets about trying to give Marco a proper home. Paul moves in to form a supportive family unit. Thus begins a protracted process full of bureaucratic and legal hurdles in which Rudy and Paul seek to become recognized as Marco’s adoptive parents.
To say the least, the idea of “gay” adoption runs into fierce resistance. In Paul’s case, the exposure of his relationship also threatens his career.
Indeed, a hostile boss and unsympathetic judge seem determined to deny this family the right to exist. Marco is taken away from the couple and his mother reappears, no more sober than before, to demand his return. The court authorities are decidedly more concerned about sexual orientation than Marco’s welfare. After all, what’s love got to do with it?
The consequences are heart-rending. One might ask who is accountable when righteous judicial prejudice kills? The movie ends with a devastating letter that Rudy and Paul address to those who used their power to stop them.
There’s no happy family reunion at the end of this rainbow. But the story and others like it have inspired an ongoing fight for rights that gives primacy to the loving care that every child needs, and without which there are no family values worthy of the name.
Schmitz will be attending the Toronto International Film Festival. Watch for coverage in future columns.