IN THE FAMILY

Directed by Patrick Wang

Cast: Patrick Wang, Sebastian Banes, Trevor St. John

Best Narrative Feature, 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival

Few films in SDAFF’s history have affirmed the festival’s purpose more than IN THE FAMILY in 2011. From director-writer-actor Patrick Wang, a relatively-unknown Texas-born former economist and theater director, came a dramatic epic that would have its North American premiere at the festival, before receiving rave reviews from renowned film critics like Roger Ebert.

Amazingly, the film itself seemed to anticipate the burgeoning critical glow that would follow its initial screenings. The opening scene awakens, as does young Chip (Sebastian Banes), to the rising sun of a new day. The loquacious six-year-old lives with his two fathers, Joey (Wang) and Cody (Trevor St. John), and the trio has settled in to a quietly happy everyday routine. 

When Cody tragically dies in a car accident, that sense of normalcy is destroyed. The uncaring mechanisms of bureaucracy and homophobia kick into gear, and since Joey is not Chip’s biological parent, he becomes more isolated and powerless to the legal changes in guardianship that inevitably follow. 

Instead of throwing down a gauntlet of sappy melodrama, Wang spends the duration closely surveying how memory and regret overlap in times of prolonged grief. Many crucial dialogue scenes are effortlessly extended, while others feel experimentally quick. Yet, Wang’s empathetic style transcends time and place, leaving us with the sense that anything is possible if only we were patient enough to listen.

Watching IN THE FAMILY now might feel like a radical experience. The last few years have made it hard to imagine that societal compromise or ideological de-escalation is possible, but that only makes the film feel even more crucial; it lovingly reminds us that harmony and conflict can indeed be reconciled. For this reason and so many more, Wang’s hopeful masterpiece about human endurance and emotional vulnerability may very well be the American film of the decade. 

Glenn Heath Jr.

Co-Presented by Film Out San Diego

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