In the town of Martin, Tennessee, Chip Hines, a precocious six year old, has only known life with his two dads, Cody and Joey. And a good life it is. When Cody dies suddenly in a car accident, Joey and Chip struggle to find their footing again. Just as they begin to, Cody’s will reveals that he named his sister as Chip’s guardian. The years of Joey’s acceptance into the family unravel as Chip is taken away from him. In his now solitary home life, Joey searches for a solution. The law is not on his side, but friends are. Armed with their comfort and inspired by memories of Cody, Joey finds a path to peace with the family and closer to his son. This is an original, quietly powerful first movie by Patrick Wang. A true work of art, showing the power of moral justice over legal justice. Having spoken with him myself he told me he had budgeted a little money to be able to deliver the film and to support a festival run, but he didn’t imagine he would be distributing the film myself. His achievement is nothing less then extraordinary.
The “issue” is certainly front and center here, but we care about him first and foremost as a person – luckily, since we spend far more time with him than one usually would in a film. There are also unexpected gestures of kindness and concern all through the film, one on the part of a Wise Man who appears from the most unexpected corner and reminds us that, even as Joey struggles for the right to be a father, he remains a tender soul in need of a father figure himself; at different moments, a glass of whiskey and a glass of water, each quietly offered, make it clear that he has found one. The film’s unhurried pace often serves it well – one of the most moving sequences involves methodically taking out a beer and opening it – but there are also moments that are plain slow and others which keep pushing at a point that has already been made or linger overmuch on history. The film overall should have been at least a third shorter. By being as long as it is, the film actually dilutes the very real intensity of its central contemplation of family and its meaning. But these are flaws in an overall excellent film, one which is rarely predictable and often quietly surprising, above all very warm and human all the way through. Its low-key quirkiness, by the way, includes one of the more off-the-wall bits of product placement to be seen in an indie film, one that will delight the handful of fans who know and care who wrote “Wild Thing”. As gracefully integrated as this is, one gets the sense that the director/writer knew the songwriter and wanted, as much as anything else, to help him out; a gesture which sums up the fundamentally loving nature of this entire project.
Wang does an excellent job in humanizing his protagonist, Joey, the well-adjusted Tennessee contractor, who ends up bewildered by the selfish actions of his in-laws, who take his child away from him, without regard to the feelings of a man who has been a good father for six years. We can infer that sister-in-law Eileen’s decision to take Chip away from Joey is based on her disdain for his homosexuality. The prejudice against Joey extends to the community-at-large, manifested by the multitude of attorneys who refuse to take his case. There’s one excellent scene where Joey is referred to an attorney by a friend who turns out to be anything but sympathetic.
‘In the Family’ ends on a happy note, after Joey offers to restore an old book for kindly retired attorney Paul Hawks. Hawks reminds one of the homespun Judge, Joe Welch, who presided over the Army-McCarthy trials during the 50s; he’s drawn to Joey, and willing to come out of retirement, since he can see this is a decent man who has been wronged. Hawks smartly avoids dealing with the Tenneesse judiciary directly and manages to convince Joey to proffer up an unusual gambit: in exchange for a deposition, Joey is willing to cede the house formerly owned by partner Cody, which he’s been living in, since his in-laws allowed him to stay there, following Cody’s death. As gracefully integrated as this is, one gets the sense that the director/writer knew the songwriter and wanted, as much as anything else, to help him out; a gesture which sums up the fundamentally loving nature of this entire project.