Two critically praised films of the past few years, The Kids Are All Right and Beginners, have focused on the lives of gay people and their families. Now, Patrick Wang’s directorial debut, In the Family, makes for another impressive look at the distinct challenges gay parents can face.
The film tells the story of two dads (played by Trevor St John and Wang himself) who dote on their loving son (Sebastian Banes, in a remarkable performance for a child actor). But when St John’s character, Cody Hines, is killed in a car accident, his partner, Joey Williams, learns that Hines’s will does not properly leave him with custody of their son, who is handed over to Hines’s sister. This, of course, leads to heartbreak — but also to Wang’s character learning how to create a situation where he can maintain contact with his six-year-old child.
Wang, an openly gay, 35-year-old actor, says he was prompted to make the film precisely because he didn’t know anyone who was in a gay-parenting situation. “I had read [activist and author] Evan Wolfson’s book, Why Marriage Matters. It struck me how uncomfortable some people are with the issue of same-sex marriage and the problems that can come out of not having those unions recognized.”
What’s striking about In the Family is how very realistic the acting feels. And thankfully, despite the topic, the film never feels maudlin or overly sentimental. “With subjects like this, there’s a fine line between being nuanced and being an after-school special. I was very conscious of that throughout the shoot,” Wang says.
Not surprisingly, Wang cites filmmakers Tony Richardson and John Cassavetes — both known for their work with actors — as major influences. “Whenever things would get tough during filming, I would read Cassavetes on Cassavetes. That got me through the hard times.”
Equally inspiring is the story behind the film. Wang’s own perseverance is truly impressive: In the Family is now gaining great reviews and box-office traction, but it is no instant-success story. The film’s growing notoriety has come after it was rejected by 30 (count ’em – 30!) film festivals. “It has been a wild ride,” Wang concedes. “For half a year, no one wanted the film. No one seemed to like it. I had to ask myself, ‘Am I a delusional director?’ I had to keep cutting to Plan B, then Plan C, D and so on. Usually, with a film like this, you play one of the major festivals and that’s your launch.”
But without TIFF or Sundance, Wang took the direct move of opening the film himself, without a distributor, in New York. That meant crucial press screenings, where he could finally have his feature seen by critics.
That led directly to two important reviews: The New York Times praised In the Family as “remarkably fresh and unpredictable,” while Roger Ebert called it “one of the year’s best.” Not too shabby for a low-budget feature made by a first-time, unknown director.
“There’s not a huge culture of adventurousness in film, so when you do something new, it’s not always rewarded. It’s lovely that people are coming to the film and connecting with it — that’s very rewarding,” Wang says. “And it’s a relief, though all of our problems aren’t solved. It’s still a great deal of work.”