Review: Heartfelt 'In the Family' broaches universal themes

Joey (Patrick Wang), left, Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) and Cody (Trevor St. John) get ready for school and work in "In the Family."

Joey (Patrick Wang), left, Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) and Cody (Trevor St. John) get ready for school and work in "In the Family."

In the town of Martin, Tennessee, Chip Hines, a precocious six year old, has only known life with his two dads, Cody and Joey. And ...

Rating: No Rating

Length: 169 minutes

Released: November 5, 2011 Limited

Cast: Trevor St. John, Patrick Wang, Sebastian Brodziak, Brian Murray, Park Overall

Director: Patrick Wang

Writer: Patrick Wang

More info and showtimes »

Everyday happiness and heartache have never been more beautifully portrayed than they are in "In the Family."

Simple and down-to-earth, yet profound and poetic, "In the Family" takes a subject that in any other setting would feel controversial and divisive and makes it a launching point for healing and clarity.

Several facts about "In the Family" are astounding. It is the director's first feature film. One of the principal actors is a little boy who holds his own with any adult. And its running time turns out to be 169 minutes, though it seems as taut as any two-hour film, and in some respects a viewer might want it never to end.

"Family" is the key concept of the film. Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) and Joey Williams (Patrick Wang), along with their son, 6-year-old Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), are a family. They live in the West Tennessee town of Martin, where Cody is a schoolteacher and Joey is a contractor.

Chip loves his two daddies, and they obviously love him. They respect his imagination and indulge his fascination with dragons, and they parent him with understanding and firmness.

Their idyllic life is interrupted when Cody is injured in a car wreck. Joey and Chip rush to the hospital, where the staff will talk only to Cody's sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), brother-in-law, Dave (Peter Hermann), and mother, Sally (Park Overall) — the "family." Self-effacing Joey doesn't make a fuss.

When Cody dies, Joey is in a daze. Chip is the only thing that binds him to reality. Slowly, they start to work their way through their tragedy, finding strength in each other. But when legalities hit the fan, Joey loses not only Chip but also the extended family he has long regarded as his own.

It's interesting that "In the Family" (set in Tennessee but shot in New York, with a few iffy accents) should come out now, when one of Tennessee's hottest issues is the "Don't Say Gay" bill. The film never uses the words "gay" or "homosexual." It doesn't even refer to Joey and Cody as partners. They live together and love each other; nothing else needs to be said.

The one time Joey's sexual orientation is referenced, the hatefulness with which it is attacked is so opposite to the audience's understanding of the character that it accentuates the shortcomings of the attacker, not Joey.

What's so impressive about the film is that it ignores all the expected stereotypes and cliches and immerses itself in the universality of human beings.

Everyone wants love; everyone wants to belong. Gender, orientation, ethnicity — those are just insignificant accessories.

Wang, who directed and wrote the script, is a collaborator of the highest order. While his performance as wry, sincere Joey is brilliant — and crucial — he gives everyone from young Brodziak to veteran Brian Murray, as Paul Hawks, room to shine.

Cinematographer Frank Barrera bolsters the story with long, gentle takes. In many scenes, the camera is on the reaction, not the action. Wang's dialogue is palpably honest and from the heart.

"In the Family" says more than any pundit or candidate ever could. Its triumph is that it sees the best in people and inspires viewers to do the same.

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