sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2018-09-08 11:48 pm
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Why do we know so much about dragons?

I don't know how to talk about Patrick Wang's In the Family (2011) without making it sound like a different movie than it is—and that might be a good movie, but it wouldn't be the loose-limbed, slow-burning, morally piercing one I watched two nights ago. It was the feature debut of its remarkable writer-director-star, whose background as an MIT grad in Boston fringe theater makes me feel I should at least know someone who knows him; I heard about it originally when it was in theaters and then the combination of a vague title with a first-time director meant I couldn't find it again for years. It was worth it when I did. It's a small movie, deeply rather than narrowly focused, and it runs nearly three hours, like a good play; it's interested in everyone in its story, regardless of how they might feel about each other at the time; it knows that sometimes just existing is a statement, but also that one person's statement is another person's Tuesday. It's an intimately political movie that never reduces to talking points. I wish I'd seen it for Pride.

The premise sounds like melodrama, so let me get it out of the way. In the fall of 2008, in the small town of Martin, Tennessee, six-year-old Chip Hines (Sebastian Brodziak) loves dragons, hates his P.E. teacher, and has two fathers. "Pa" is Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), the rangy, bespectacled math teacher who scoops him upside down shrieking with laughter at bedtime; "Daddy" is Joey Williams (Wang), the rumpled, sleepily smiling contractor who tells him all about Fafnir when he cannons into his parents' bedroom at the crack of dawn, demanding a dragon story before school. His mother is present in recollection and flashback: she died when Chip was born and her widower surprised everyone including himself by falling hard and lastingly for the easygoing rock of a man who saw him through the first six months of grief. They have lived together ever since, their delight in one another undimmed by mortgages and PTA meetings and family Thanksgivings as awkward as first contact. We see from a lesson on absolute values and the order of operations that Cody is the kind of teacher who makes mathematics a pleasure for his middle-grade students; renovating the library of a grand house, Joey soothes an anxious client with down-home charm as genuine as his knowledge of building and bookbinding. Chip with his long, light-tangling hair and the painted wooden blocks he carries in his bookbag—one for each week's dragon—is as curious and fearless as any child who knows they are unconditionally loved. It's not a perfect life; it's an ordinary, detailed, deeply loving one, and for its first half-hour the film just hangs out in it. And then something happens to Cody. We never know exactly what, partly because Joey arriving at the hospital with only the vaguest report of a car accident can't get the information: can't talk to the doctor, can't question a nurse, can't even see the love of his life unconscious after surgery because he's not "family of Cody Hines"; for the same ludicrous, implacable reason, he can't be there when Cody dies. Scratch that melodrama, actually. For queer viewers who remember anything before Obergefell v. Hodges, there is nothing far-fetched in the mechanisms of law that move all too smoothly to close Joey out of his own life. A routine visit to sort out post-mortem paperwork with Cody's sister and her wealthier husband (Kelly McAndrew and Peter Hermann) rabbit-punches him with the news that Eileen intends to abide by her brother's six-year-old will—predating Joey—and claim all his assets, including his joint accounts, the title to the house he lived in, and custody of his son. A blonde-banged white woman with a tightening smile, she keeps her brother's memory between them like a knife as an escalatingly upset Joey demands to know "what is changing here . . . I am Chip's dad!" he explodes finally, bewildered and grieving, beleaguered, not easy now. "Since when did that need explaining?" Genteel to the last bless your heart, his sister-out-law assures him, "You don't have to worry about Chip." Not long after, he drops his son off for an overnight at his grandparents and doesn't get him back. When he tries, the police enter the picture. Then a restraining order. Metaphysically, Joey has found himself in a custody battle. Legally, he's nowhere. Nothing ever tied him to Cody but trust and chemistry, in-jokes, the discovery of each other and themselves, going to sleep every night together and waking every morning, raising a child. They never talked about "the big stuff" and now, in a weird and dreadful slide of nightmare, it's here.

I thought after the first act of this movie that I was watching the indie version of a social message picture, discursive and naturalistic but still essentially a callout; I realized in the third act that it's something even more interesting. In the Family is an absolutely classic American quest for justice, enacted by a decent, plainspoken everyman with nothing on his side but the mild-mannered determination and incontestable moral force traditionally associated with Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper. It just so happens that this particular everyman is queer, blue-collar, and Chinese-American, with a broad-boned face that can close warily or quirk into sweetness, a soft spiky fringe of black hair, and a deep, slow-swinging Tennessee drawl that makes me want to fancast him as Yoon Ha Lee's Shuos Jedao. (Wang himself is from Texas, which may seal the deal.) He drives a red pickup, lives in denims and on beer, and the film doesn't present it as subversion: it's just Joey's life. He bounced around the foster system as a child and he's better with his hands than with finance or law. He talks by finding his way into words, but once he finds them, they can be Sandburg, Steinbeck poetry. He's as much of an avatar of America as Tom Joad or Will Kane and for every character who blinks at the apparent contradiction of ethnicity/accent/sexuality/class, there's another who sees him as we're meant to, an entire person, extraordinary only in the clarity of his love and stubbornness. He wants not to lose his son and when every lawyer in town rejects his case, some more bluntly than others, nevertheless he persists. There are ways in which this film is so old Hollywood that when Joey unexpectedly lands an advocate in the person of shrewd retired attorney Paul Hawks (the late Brian Murray), I identified him at once as the Spencer Tracy role. There are ways in which it's not Hollywood at all. Wang and DP Frank Barrera favor theatrically long takes, occasionally handheld but more often than not framed as if the camera has been left at an angle to the action, so that the important human information moves along the margins of the screen; in the deliberate inverse of a quick-cut style, scenes seem to begin before anything really vital is happening in them and hold a beat or so longer than the delivery of their message demands. It does not feel shapeless, or accidental, or dull. It feels like living with the characters, seeing more of their lives than just the plot-ticket highlights. There's no shortage of tension in a movie about a separated parent and child. It doesn't fade even in the scenes where it's not foregrounded—the audience has to live with the absence and the injustice as much as Joey does. We're just trusted not to need reminding. We are similarly trusted to remember that Cody's family are not caricatures of red-state racism and homophobia; they are stunned, bereaved, and behaving badly as people in distress often do, closing ranks to protect what they see as the last of Cody without recognizing that the man he adored fits that description, too. Their ideas of kinship are bounded by blood and marriage lines. Joey who changed his name at sixteen to honor his foster parents—the people he still calls, without explanation or qualification, "Mom" and "Dad"—knows the world is not so simply divided. His challenge is how to say so to the rest of his family, who are currently not calling themselves by that name.

"Just because the law has limits," Paul counsels his new client at their first session, "does not mean our lives have those same limits . . . You got to figure out what's important here, regardless of the law. Forget the law. What's really important to change in your life, what don't you want to disturb, and what you're ready to give up. Once you got that sorted out, really think about who or what is in your way . . . And then I get to figure out how the law fits into all these things you've figured out." Taking its own advice, the plot of In the Family is fitted to its important things, shaped around its characters rather than the conventions of its genre; again and again it points toward some next obvious move and then doesn't oppose or avert so much as sidestep it completely, traveling on a totally different plane. Even when the action finally moves into a courthouse, what Joey's doing there turns out to be a gamble as honest and canny as anything out of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), not a head-on showdown but an ambush of ideals. "I think it's more important they get me than some judge gets me. I don't know if it's going to happen, but I want to give them a chance to get me." The camera until this scene has had a habit of shooting Joey from behind, placing us literally on his side—looking across his shoulder or sometimes squarely at the back of his head—not excluding him from the frame, but directing us to study the faces of the people who interact with him instead. Now it holds steadily, full-face, on this man seated at one end of a conference table, first as he's asked a series of terrible questions and then as he brushes them into insignificance with nothing more than a life told truthfully. The sequence runs something like half an hour in real time, with very few cuts. I suspect it will either lose the viewer for talkiness or feel like a shot in the conscience. It had the latter effect on me and I found myself thinking that I was so glad that could still be done in movies, not disingenuously, not naively: holding a hand out in the dark. The systems that make it easy to be hateful are real, but so is the definition of a family, compassed by the law or not. So is the definition of America, on which it is impossible not to meditate these days. If you accept the existence of a heartland, then you accept that sometimes it looks like a first-generation queer dad sweeping his non-biological son up in his arms. Pass me the whole damn box of Kleenex, John Ford.

I did not realize until the credits that Martin, TN is played in this movie by Yonkers, NY, which goes to show my knowledge of the ecology of the American South, but I didn't question the setting partly because it feels like a small town in a culture whose rules I don't know entirely, not like a projection of a small town from the clichés of Hollywood. There is as much reality in the female friends (Eisa Davis, Zoe Winters, and the marvelous Elaine Bromka) who gather around Joey in the days after his double loss, offering funny, angry, unsentimental support, as there is in the same-sex marriage ban that no one mentions because no one needs to. Certain subjects never are addressed directly, but I imagine only a viewer from an ask culture would expect them to be. That kind of awareness defines the movie's geography more acutely than the presence or absence of crape myrtle; like the best of the silver screen, it's sleight-of-hand and it's real. You can spend some time there if you want. I recommend it. This family brought to you by my figuring backers at Patreon.
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)

[personal profile] rosefox 2018-09-09 06:41 am (UTC)(link)
I don't know if I could bear to watch this, but I'm glad it exists.

Maybe after Kit turns 18.
selkie: (Default)

[personal profile] selkie 2018-09-09 01:49 pm (UTC)(link)
Whoa. Thank you. I don't know that I could watch anything so immediately topical, but the review has my interest.
(And then my wrist brace thunked my ten-key pad because I am at work, but it really was A++.)
Edited 2018-09-09 13:49 (UTC)
isis: (head)

[personal profile] isis 2018-09-09 02:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, this sounds like an amazing (and difficult) movie. Thanks for the review.
genarti: dark-skinned woman and dark background and lilies; words "I don't change just to suit your vision" ([misc] politics)

[personal profile] genarti 2018-09-09 05:04 pm (UTC)(link)
This sounds heartbreaking and hard and really beautiful, and like something to watch when I'm feeling up for the intensity. Thank you for writing about it.
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2018-09-09 09:00 pm (UTC)(link)
This sounds *very* powerful and painful (regardless of the resolution). I'll look out for it. I hear you on that whole box of Kleenex.
gwynnega: (Default)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2018-09-09 09:12 pm (UTC)(link)
This sounds wonderful. When I watch, I will have Kleenex at the ready.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2018-09-10 12:23 am (UTC)(link)
We never know exactly what, partly because Joey arriving at the hospital with only the vaguest report of a car accident can't get the information: can't talk to the doctor, can't question a nurse, can't even see the love of his life unconscious after surgery because he's not "family of Cody Hines"; for the same ludicrous, implacable reason, he can't be there when Cody dies.

It sounds great, but that's nightmare fuel. I'm glad this movie exists but I probably wouldn't be able to see it.
niqaeli: Obama in Aretha's hat w/ text overlay that says "progress" (progress)

[personal profile] niqaeli 2018-09-10 01:24 am (UTC)(link)
I'm glad you wrote this, because I do not think I can watch it -- both because this conflict of the film is a quiet horror that I have not yet forgotten when it was simply the background tapestry of our world and because I'm not sure I have it in me to watch anyone getting wrong a Tennessean accent, much less possibly a whole town, when the subject matter is so dear.

But it sounds like a wonderful movie, and I'm very glad to hear of a film that shows the kind of heartland I've always known: as you say, sometimes it is a first-generation queer dad sweeping his non-biological son up in his arms. And the big obvious hate crimes are horrific and happen, but they're periodic events, unlike the constant background machinery of society that so easily and readily pushes people out of their own lives; families persist in existing, complicated and loving, anyway. I grew up in that heartland, not the one political talking heads have been yelling about for three years or more.
niqaeli: me, in the woods (enchanted woods)

[personal profile] niqaeli 2018-09-10 04:23 am (UTC)(link)
Tennessee is beautiful and difficult and full of contradictions. It gets called the belt buckle of the bible belt, and that's absolutely true. Nashville is Music City -- where just about everyone goes to record their album -- so you see all sorts there, and that's absolutely true.

My home town is Cookeville, a little town halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, that grew into a rather big "small town" because it was the centre of the Upper Cumberlands, and because of the bible college that grew and transformed to be a lot more than a bible college, and because they wrangled 4 exits off the I-40. There was a strong tradition of the arts -- theatre and other fine arts as well as the "low" arts of crafting and music. I grew up knowing more out gay men than I could count on the fingers of a single hand (which says quite a bit in the semi-rural South); I took art lessons from two of them. The church I grew up with past the age of 10 was Unity, which is... glancingly Christian by way of its history, but as a New Age/New thought establishment is rather less Christian in modern practice than most of the other churches in Tennessee.

And of course all that doesn't change everything else, either, and I grew up terrified to be queer and grasping every possible reason why I might not really be so, because I saw how hard it was and how much it cost. But: people are still people, everywhere. And the heartland I, personally, grew up with was the one you describe from this film. The complicated people existing, even in the places where many people imagine they can't possibly, and the genteel, steely, cruel statements of "bless your heart" and "everything will be as it should be and is best," that are uttered sharply as your life is smashed to pieces with the tools of the establishment.

In a few years, perhaps I'll work up to watching this film. But I really am so glad to know it even exists, so, as I forgot to say explicitly in my first comment: thank you for this review.