“In the Family” is a deeply touching movie about the true nature of family. It's a picture that looks from the outside as if it would be a polemics-filled cliche fest but turns out to be very real, movingly so.
It’s written and directed by star Patrick Wang, who plays Joey Williams, a Chinese-American who has been living with Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) and Cody’s 6-year-old son Chip (Sebastian Barnes) for almost the boy’s entire life.
Cody was married at the time of Chip’s birth. But his wife died in child birth. As Joey worked on a home improvement project in the Hines house, the men became friends first, then Cody fell in love with Joey and they and the precocious, dragon-obsessed Chip became a family.
Then Cody is killed in an car accident and, after a few weeks, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrews) takes the boy away from Joey. Cody’s long-ago-written will left all his property and custody of Chip to Eileen.
That’s the shorthand version of a long film that follows all involved from the initial meeting between Joey and Cody through the highs and lows of Joey’s efforts to rejoin the family that he felt he belonged to and to reunite with Chip.
Wang tells that story through flashbacks that blend well into the chronological narrative.
He anchors his first feature with a stellar performance. His Joey is the most decent of guys, rock solid, loyal, honest, etc. And even when he is faced with the pain of separation and loss, his frustration never boils over to damage others.
Nor are the “bad guys,” Eileen, her husband and her parents evil. Are they callous and selfish toward both Joey and Chip? Yes. Are those actions rooted in hatred and prejudice? Probably not.
I say that because I have a lesbian friend who lost a custody fight over her little boy a few years ago. Wang’s picture gets to the same emotions and conflicts that I saw from a distance then. But the film’s anti-gay nastiness, which does rear its head during the legal wrangling, doesn’t come close to rising to the level I saw in real life.
That’s also likely why “In the Family” never feels “Chip has two dads” cliched or like Wang is hammering away at a cultural agenda. Instead, he’s telling a story that rings true while raising issues that play out in courts across the country.
But mostly, “In the Family” is about family -- as seen through the life and actions of Joey, who the writer/director/star fully embodies and makes admirably unforgettable.