I've been slowly moving through my list of the best movies of 2012 in this column--and the film you are least likely to have seen is perhaps the one I have most often recommended since I first saw it last year. "In the Family" (#10 on my list) played in Portland for less than a week; first-time director Patrick Wang (who also wrote and stars in the film) distributed the film himself and now has self-released it on home video. The lack of a distributor makes me really sad because this careful film so deserves an audience. Yes, it is nearly three hours long (its deliberate pace has led several critics to categorize it in the genre of "slow cinema," characterized by long takes and a minimalist, observational tone), but you will be hard-pressed to find a film that is more carefully constructed, suspenseful and, in its way, revolutionary.The film's main character is Joey, an Asian-American Tennessean grappling with the aftermath of his life partner's death and embroiled in a fight for custody of Chip, the six-year=old boy they viewed as his son but the law doesn't. But in a manner that befits this plain-spoken man, Wang doesn't load the dice with dramatic speeches in which the characters discuss what they mean to each other. Instead, he depicts the lived-in intimacy of parents juggling pick-up times and carrying on dual conversations with their child and each other, of cordial relationships with co-workers who ask after Chip, of the routines and buoyant chatter of a well-loved child. Wang understands the importance of everyday life in demonstrating what is true.
Joey's status as an outsider is subtly conveyed. We learn enough of his background to tell that he has been raised outside his birth culture and has spent time as a foster child; he is nearly always the only non-Caucasian in the room and is accustomed to breezing past others' doubts and discomfort with courtesy. Though in flashback it appears that Cody's family accepted Joey and treated their relationship with respect, everything changes when Cody is hospitalized and then dies. We see how, in crisis, Cody's family closes ranks, and the hospital staff efficiently enforces appropriate norms. It's an important detail of Joey's experience, and one of many ways the film keeps things specific and complex.
Wang takes the time to deconstruct how it is that otherwise good people can justify behaving as Cody's family does. Here it is a will written before Joey was part of Cody's family that provides Cody's sister with reasons to enforce what she asserts were Cody's wishes, ignoring other better evidence of what he would have wanted. The film is full of tiny examples of how being part of a dominant culture allows one the prerogative to use law and custom to bolster norms that may well contradict the purpose of those very laws and customs. One can feel angry at Cody's family members and others in the film--I certainly did--but the film does not turn them into cartoon villains. In a time of pain and confusion, they merely reach for the tools at their disposal to bring order to chaos, and the power they have gives them the means to justify actions they would not otherwise have taken.
As a result, Joey's dilemma seems all that much more unsolvable. The groundwork laid in the film's early scenes establishes for us that separating Joey and Chip is a tragedy, but in this time and place it seems a truly unsolvable one. Cody's never-updated will--an apt metaphor--has left his sister in charge of his property and his son, so she now wields the power to take away everything that has meant home and family to Joey. Joey's truth gives him no standing to assert it, and a succession of lawyers tell him he has no case.And here is where the suspense comes in. After months of banging on closed doors, Joey receives an offer of help from a most-unlikely source: a retired judge who seems a card-carrying member of the good-ole-boys' club. Yet this good man provides an extremely rare example of a person who puts the law in a proper perspective, who looks beyond the surface to its intended purpose, and imagines how to use the law to move beyond what currently seems possible to what is just and true. It's the most inspiring legal story I've seen since "To Kill a Mockingbird."
I wish I could find a way to make this film required viewing for anyone who dares to opine about gay marriage. More effectively than any argument, Wang's inspired work invites you spend some time sitting with the experience of an outsider and contemplating what is really true about his experience. It invites you to think more deeply about the meaning of family. And particularly if you are a lawyer or judge, it challenges you to look beyond our collective failures of imagination to where the law might also point the way. It's hard for me to imagine a better investment of three hours.