Arts movie review

In the Family is delicate and slow-brewing

MIT alum’s film debut explores the usual father-son bond in a less conventional setting

4875 inthefamily
Patrick Wang’s In the Family tells the story of a man (Wang) who must fight for custody of his son (Sebastian Brodziak) after the death of his partner.


In the Family

Directed by Patrick Wang

Starring Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John,
and Sebastian Brodziak

An admirable debut from writer-director-actor Patrick Wang ’98, In the Family examines the timeless story of a father’s love with a topical twist. The gay, Southern-born, Asian-American Joey Williams (Wang) lives in Tennessee with his partner, the schoolteacher Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), and Cody’s 6-year-old biological son, Chip (the talented Sebastian Brodziak). Joey’s an average guy with a big heart; he comes from a foster family background and changed his Asian birth name in memory of his foster parents. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Joey met Cody: A contractor by trade, Joey met the then-married Cody as a client; the two formed a close bond after Cody’s wife passed away, and both of them were surprised when it turned into a romance.

The film’s first act takes time to carefully introduce the family dynamic — a normal and loving one, which just happens to have two male parents instead of the traditional male and female. After Cody dies in a car accident, Joey discovers that legal custody of Chip has transferred to Cody’s sister Eileen. Following a series of arguments and misunderstandings, Eileen forces Joey and the boy apart. Devastated by the losses of his partner and his son, Joey fights to reunite with Chip and bring his unraveling family back together.

The events in the plot itself sound more like fodder for a Lifetime movie, which makes the execution of the film all the more remarkable. Wang’s wise restraint shows through in everything from the dialogue to the cinematography. Upending the stereotype of Southern bigotry, never do the characters make overt references to homosexuality or race; the negative space stands out as the one of the film’s most memorable aspects. This is a movie that doesn’t dumb it down for the audience — everyone already knows that the unique situation is colored by societal biases.

Rather than focus on any political or social message, Wang simply lets the story of a father and a son unfold through each carefully-planned scene. Some of Wang’s inexperience shows through in the slow pacing, which sometimes drags uncomfortably. While much of the extra time is needed to let the audience fully appreciate Joey’s world, storytelling is often strengthened by brevity — just look at the first 10 minutes of Up. Thankfully, viewers aren’t forced into a series of exaggeratedly emotional scenes — the carefully-composed, uncut, stable-camera shots, bookended by character entrances and exits, evoke traditional theater to maintain some distance between actor and audience.

For a first feature, Wang displays remarkable maturity in his directorial handling of the subject matter and in his unassuming portrayal of the loving, kind, frustrated Joey. Though Wang is the main force behind the film, it’s not a one-man show; the rest of the ensemble cast are equally strong, topped with a strong performance from Sebastian Brodziak, who lights up the screen as Chip in each scene.

In the Family deftly strikes delicate balances with emotion and controversy; it’s rare to see a film so strongly grounded in a story about family without veering into the territory of Disney clichés. I suspect Wang will be making MIT proud with his cinematic achievements in years to come.

Patrick Wang graduated MIT in Course 14 with a concentration in Music and Theater Arts. In the Family will be screening at LSC on April 27 and 28.