It seems to me more often than not, whenever I see a good to great film that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see there’s always at least a decent story to it. Somehow, in the barrage of year-end awards and best of lists, I missed noting the title In the Family, at the tail end of 2011. I guess I didn’t retain or read Slant’s list as carefully as I thought, either that or I hadn’t seen it anywhere near me so it was almost like it had yet to exist. However, that lack of availability kept it alive for this year’s BAMs. Now, oddly enough when I saw this month’s schedule at Theatre N, I saw it, it seemed like a likely view but it didn’t jump out not right away. Then the weekend it’s playing came, and thanks to an abysmal weekend of new summer releases it was the only game in town, so far as I was concerned. However, I was still under-informed. I read the synopsis, seemed good. However, I didn’t immediately note the running time.
In trying to schedule my day, I did. The film runs 2 hours and 49 minutes. I do not have hard and fast rules regarding running-times, as my commendations for Satantango and Berlin Alexanderplatz clearly indicate. Yes, I prefer comedies that run 90 minutes or less when speaking in generalities, that does not mean I’ve never liked one longer. The Avengers is only about 25 minutes shorter and I never heard anyone complain about how long it is. However, I do have to concede that it is a factor. So what I did was I started to read up on it, just a bit. Based on what I saw I wanted to give a go.
With this film, and my prior example, you have two instances that highlight the difference between running time and pace. Anyone can make a film this long, or longer, if they want to, and frequently early assemblies and cuts are. What matters is what you do with the running time you’ve allotted your story. I’ve seen films a third as long as this one that feel twice as long as it actually is. There are films that feel like they will never end and others you wish wouldn’t, and this one is much closer to the latter than the former.
The term deliberate pace is not, in my mind, a polite way of saying slow. There are scenes that don’t cut, but there are scenes that are rather quick, which add to the tone and help the film pace itself. It is by no means the test of endurance that The Turin Horse is, even though that film is shorter.
So preambles aside, the film works beautifully in large part due to the restraints is shows. The film tells the tale of of a custody battle following the death of one partner in a same sex relationship. That’s the film in its simplest terms, now the film could be handled differently and still work but then it would run the risk of pigeonholing itself as a gay film, or a racial film or a courtroom film, depending on how the plot unfolds. It could quickly become maudlin and melodramatic. However, in restraining its emotion, allowing it to build in its characters and its audience it creates a tremendously universal and human story that I’m sure many can relate to, whether it reflects anything in their life or not. One example of the restraint, and a litmus test of sorts for films with gay themes, is that the words “gay” or “homosexual,” or any pejorative variation thereof are not spoken. This is a clear choice it seems that underlines both the humanity of the story and the underlying hostilities and prejudices that exist.
The drama in the film is always palpable because the film cloisters its characters. In certain scenes it just allows us to watch a few characters behave and interact, without dialogue but there is still much being said. There’s a lot of film theory banter about simply watching behavior, but like everything in this film it doesn’t push this aspect to the extreme either. There are small, delicate, wonderful scenes like this sprinkled throughout; a fantastic example is Chip (Sebastian Banes, credited in this film as Sebastian Brodziak) getting himself and Joey (Patrick Wang) a drink after the funeral.
Aside from having well-tempered scene lengths, the film also structures itself well and interestingly. There are three flashbacks, which all occur post-mortem. The film begins in medias res, after Cody’s (Trevor St. John) death is where we start to get to know him and miss him as Joey does. There are also I believe four segments of the film that begin in black with some audio coming in to precede the scene, bringing us slowly into the current moment and visually dividing the story (the first occurs at the very beginning with a gorgeously languid fade in).
The acting in this film is quite nearly impeccable. It can be said that a running time such as this gives the actors more time to develop their character, hone their performance but that would be ignoring the fact that the work still does have to be done. Wang particularly has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the third act, his physicality is a lot of what takes us along but at the end it’s just him, speaking to his family and speaking to us and it’s nothing less than monumental that this “unedited” deposition scene works. It keeps with the cloistered aspect of the film but brings things full circle and is riveting. However, Kelly McAndrew’s reaction shots during this scene are breathtaking also. The real find of the film, however, may be Sebastian Banes. Actors around his age, he plays a character who is six, with as much natural talent and charisma are rare. A few scenes in I was already comparing him favorably to Drew Barrymore.
In the Family is a revelation in many ways, not only for my story of not really having heard about it and then having it fall into my lap but also for revealing the tremendous budding auteur that is Patrick Wang. It’s a crime how under-seen this film is and I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.