By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“In the Family,” Patrick Wang’s first feature film as writer and director, opens with a quiet scene of a family preparing for breakfast. The child in the family, Chip (played by child actor Sebastian Barnes), rushes from one place to another while chattering. He’s a charming little boy with a head full of light brown curls who has just started school.
The only unusual thing about this family is that there are two fathers, Cody (played by Trevor St. John) and Joey (played by Wang himself). We don’t see a mother, but we do see both men playing with Chip and helping him get ready for school. Up to this point, the film portrays a warm and intimate family life.
But suddenly, Cody is gone, and, too soon after the funeral, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) reveals that she doesn’t want Chip living with Joey. The law seems to be on Eileen’s side. The rejection is based on his sexual orientation — and possibly his Asian blood — which leaves Joey devastated. He must go about his daily routine and holds himself together emotionally, as he tries to make a plan to get his son back.
As a director, Wang decided boldly and successfully to tell his story in a naturalistic manner, rather than through the faster, more regimented pacing a Hollywood picture would normally utilize. He’s been criticized for letting certain scenes go on too long, but, by doing so, he captures the pacing of everyday life and the unspoken assumptions that often go along with that.
So when Joey visits the hospital to find out what’s happened to Cody, both Joey and the audience have to sit and wait for information, growing more stressed with each second. It’s a hard, tough, and realistic look at the situation.
Director Wang, together with his cinematographer Frank Barrera, also chooses unconventional camera placements. Sometimes an actor, or part of an actor, wanders out of frame, and the camera swings around slowly to follow an actor who’s wandered away. A shot will cut off an actor’s head, which seems amateurish at first, but serves to emphasize body language.
This odd approach to photography works, putting the viewer in the midst of the characters and their relationships. The camera is often placed as though it’s someone sitting at a table, and so much of this family-oriented drama takes place at or around tables, in kitchens, dining rooms, or living rooms.
Impressive performances help the film as well. Sebastian Banes, as little Chip, doesn’t show any sign of self-consciousness, embodying his character with spark and charm. Trevor St. John, as Cody, masterfully plays a character who’s charming on the surface but buffeted by inner demons. Wang, playing Joey, has to render a man whose world has just collapsed, who has to think seriously for the first time about what is really important in his life.
Viewers may not agree with Wang’s resolution of this family strife. They may also not believe that such things can happen in their area. But Wang wisely leaves such questions open. He is not trying to make a speech. He is trying to paint a portrait of one family, one crisis, one struggle leading to one end. He succeeds artistically and emotionally. (end)
“In the Family” plays October 5 through October 11 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Director/Writer/Producer Patrick Wang will be in town from October 2 to October 6. For showtimes, prices, directions, and more information, call 206-829-7863 or visit www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/2325.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.