Places of the heart
by Tim Pfaff
"Purity of heart is to will one thing," wrote the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. No one quotes Kierkegaard in Patrick Wang's In the Family, an independent film as far from vintage Woody Allen as you can get. But the wise Dane's dictum nails the substance of Wang's plain-talking film, just released on DVD. The one thing its main character, Joey – not incidentally played by Wang – wants is "Chip coming home,' and in the journey to that reunion, hearts all around are purified.
Chip (six-year-old newcomer Sebastian Banes in a performance of mesmerizing focus) is the not-even-adopted son of recently single gay dad Joey, who abruptly finds himself in a custody battle for the boy, the biological son of his lover of six years, Cody (Trevor St. John). But to say that the film is about custody is like saying that Swann's Way is about cookies or Death in Venice about the perils of tourism.
Late in the film Joey confesses that the male couple's own-made family was so happy that he and Cody forgot to make time to talk about "the big things," like wills. In the Family talks about the big things, but less about wills than about love, compassion, inclusion, and hope. It reminds us that True Love Waits, in the Radiohead sense.
The single-minded Wang, writer, director, producer, and principal actor of In the Family, has made an artful film that quietly defies the term "vanity production." The collegiality of the enterprise is palpable, and the film's disparate elements – words, image, and sound; the Rembrandt colors, the Vermeer light – mesh so completely that they disappear inside the story. Its tone, embedded in the characters' Tennessee accents, intrinsically sweet as pie, is a testimony to the power of understatement when it comes to the big things.
Joey drives a big, red truck that crowds many a frame while simultaneously keeping his character right-sized: he looks almost like another kid behind the wheel. A maker and a doer, he's a builder who creates homes both at and away from the client site. The home he wants to bring Chip back to is mostly a place of the heart, but it's also the house he refurbished for Cody and his then-wife Rebecca (Julia Motyka), to make it child-ready. The vital and greatly pregnant Rebecca, whom Cody clearly loves to pieces, dies in childbirth. Months later, as Cody thanks Joey not just for his handiwork but more for "holding this all together" – Joey has, among many more inconspicuous things, built a crib for Chip – he kisses Joey, twice. As the film opens, they've been living together in the house, with Chip at the center of their lives, those six years.
Another Kierkegaard idea, "thoughts that wound from behind," describes something essential about the film's nonlinear narrative. The viewer is shuttled back and forth in time across ice-smooth transitions, but never in a way that creates confusion. The flow is true to the rhythms of memory as actually experienced.
The film's three hours unfold at the uncomfortable pace of everyday life, where big things happen in the blink of an eye and change life irrevocably. Less than a half-hour into the film, Cody is killed in a car accident (that the viewer is spared), and the two-daddy family's odyssey hits the rocks. (As the real-life dead do, Cody comes back for potent flashbacks.)
The big is frequently enacted by the little. The flashing red lights of a police car, refracted through the frosted glass around the front door of Cody's sister, Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), signal not only that Chip has been taken from Joey's life, but also that Joey's movements toward Chip are now circumscribed by the law, the inevitable restraining order.
Films about fatherhood, mostly fumbled, are thick on the ground these days. In the Family skillfully evades their conventions and cliches. Joey's struggle is not to free Chip from the grip of false family. After his initial blowup when Eileen explains that she's the official executor of Cody's estate ("he had six years to change his mind," she says, brandishing a will Cody signed just before bringing Joey into his life) – and the indignity of repeatedly being told what a good job he did raising the child now taken away from him – Joey learns not to challenge the integrity of the couple with the law on their side but instead to find common ground with them. Many people will show up to help this remarkable kid, Joey observes in the film's most powerful sequence, incongruously set at a legal disposition, "but I'm going to be at the front of that line."
The viewer sees Joey from two main perspectives. In the dominant one he sits, hugging the left edge of the screen, at the breakfast table of the house he calls home, before and after it is broken. He's perched there like the captain of some modern Flying Dutchman, off to find redemption through love. The other view is from behind, as he frequently appears, center-screen, readying himself for the thoughts, words, and actions that wound.
The film's audio track includes nothing that the characters don't also hear. Songs by droll troubadour Chip Taylor, which mean the world to Cody and supply the soundtrack for his opening up to Joey, become real-time leitmotifs. Other sounds – a nerve-jangling child's alarm clock, the scrape of bevel on wood, the rattle of Joey's truck – make an aural tapestry for the story while keeping us focused on it.
Overheard things are often more important than heard ones. Joey's flagging hope is buoyed by hearing Chip's voice in the background of a subversive phone call made by a mutual friend of his and Eileen's. And in one of the film's most airborne sequences, we hear, through a crack in a bedroom door, the voice of Joey, on cassette, telling the exiled Chip the story of "Pastey" (the legendary Irish dragon, Paiste), the latest in a series of "the dragon of the week" stories both gay daddies have been telling their dragon-obsessed kid. No sooner has it ended than Chip hits replay, to hear his purloined dad call him "Chipmunk," the nickname he claimed to hate.
Only the minutely documented progress of Joey's soul could prepare you for the deposition scene, when he speaks without calculation about the love that can come only from having been loved. I saw In the Family on the big screen in three consecutive early-afternoon matinees during its San Francisco run. Each day's audience felt like the same worshipful handful of us, sprinkled throughout the theater, mostly in groups of one, showing up for the parenting. At the last of those matinees, I recorded the deposition scene, audio only, on my smartphone – so, like Chip, I could listen as often as I wanted until the DVD of In the Family was released.