Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) eats reheated food, drives an apple-red pickup, doesn’t read. Legal documents baffle him. So does meanness. When Cody (Trevor St John) his boyfriend of six years is killed in a car accident, the threads of polite tolerance between him and his purported in-laws begin to fray; when a will, written before Cody met him, stipulates that Cody’s sister Eileen will be six-year-old son Chip’s legal guardian, the blow is shattering in part because Joey’s facade of level-headed amiability remains intact.
The marvel of In The Family, which Wang also wrote and directed, is how an ordinary person – a man who according to any definition is a simpleton – shows such conviction about his ordinariness that it becomes a state of grace. In the first third of this almost three hour movie, the way in which Wang’s direction and performance shaped Joey made me squirm; it was like watching a liberal tract on the perils of Tennessee conservatives, on the stupidity of hospitals not letting partners visit each other. Then in quiet scenes between Joey and his neighbors or the intimacy between him and Chip, his strength becomes impressive. Wang’s camera work – a dozen POV shots over Joey’s shoulder – emphasizes his isolation. The film’s length asks the audience to hold questions about how Joey and Cody met and how an Asian man made it to the rural South, and when the answers come they make sense. The awkward, cute seduction scene between the two men, told in flashback, is worth the price of admission: two bros with Miller Lites and a Chip “Wild Thing” Taylor” CD (St John’s performance is a marvel of courtly reticent charm).
Wang has the insight to dilute some of the special pleading on Joey’s behalf by including, in an unexpected wrinkle, one more character, a lawyer whose majestic library Joey is remodeling and whose law books are getting rebound, played by Brian Murray with wit and flair (it’s a restrained Charles Laughton role). Shrewd and with an unflinching gaze, Paul Hawks is won over by Joey’s sincerity if unconvinced of his intelligence. In the last scene these elements come together in a quarter-hour deposition scene in which in-laws Eileen and Dave get to hear why Joey, coaxed and prodded by an amused Hawks, would make a splendid father. Too close to Kramer vs Kramer, I thought, until the plainspoken eloquence of Wang’s script wins. The conclusion is one development too implausible and a few scenes dawdle; for a couple of hours the clothes, Cody’s eyeglass frames, and use of land lines fooled me into thinking this was set in the nineties; but fans of Kiarostami or Yi-Yi should check out In The Family, the beneficiary of a brief New York City run last fall and two in South Florida this spring.