In a small Tennessee town, Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) — a happily married husband and teacher with a baby on the way — loses his wife shortly after the birth of their son. He finds solace and support in the arms of Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) and endeavors to raise his son Chip (Sebastian Banes) in this newly reconfigured family. But, like the best laid plans, the situation goes awry again. This time, Hines dies in a car accident, uprooting Chip from the stability of his life with Joey and dropping him into a custody battle with Cody’s more conservative sister and her family.
Political and legal discourse presumes to tackle moral or values-based social issues, but does so without sensitivity. “Nothing’s personal” may as well be the catchphrase for the last 25 years. Health care is all about the business of providing and paying for services. Contraception and abortion aren’t personal because the very people involved in this most intimate of decisions aren’t actively engaged in the political debate — women. When men, especially white men, lord over such affairs, how can the approach be anything other than professional?
And so it is with the ever-evolving family dynamic. But what is more personal or more intimate than the family unit? The professional concern is supposed to focus on what is best for the children — a stable, loving environment in which to raise and nurture them and transform them into responsible adults. Yet we allow ourselves to get bogged down in irrelevant details. How to define marriage — is it only between a man and a woman of the same race? Is it an abomination if we consider unions between same-sex couples? Is that marriage? Should there be legal and civil rights for such couples?
The debate strays from the personal and, in truth, it wanders far and wide from the primary, universal concern.
As the writer, director and star of In The Family, Wang seeks to return to the heart of the matter and he does so by challenging the legal (and by extension, the political) system and stare directly into the face and eyes of the adversary. Through the film, which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award (Best First Feature/John Cassavettes Award), he accomplishes this feat without creating an ideological screed. He is no political flame-thrower out to firebomb the cultural landscape. He is a filmmaker and a humanist.
For those familiar with the social and legal context, it is difficult to watch In The Family and not think about the Lovings of Virginia, the interracial couple who took their case to the Supreme Court 45 years ago to earn the right to guarantee the full legality of their marriage, including the property inheritance, spousal benefits and joint custody of their offspring. I shared this with Wang during a recent phone interview.
“I had read a little bit about the Loving case through Evan Wolfson’s book (Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry) … and some other cases from that time period because they offer interesting parallels,” Wang said. “But I’m not sure if there’s a direct line between how those filtered into the writing. I think what I brought from the reading I had done was what moved me … the people, the human beings at the center of it all. So I started there in my writing, too, and let the political emerge out of the consequences of the rules and the times these characters lived in.”
If only politicians could embrace the people at the heart of the political narrative rather than simply exploit them and their stories for anecdotal purposes. If only they could see the family as Wang as wants us to.
“I’m not sure where it came from, but I had this image of two dads playing soccer with their kid,” Wang explained. “It was a place I didn’t know … very well and a family arrangement that I had never really seen before, and the curiosity of what I didn’t know led me through the process.”
Wang sounds like the kind of ideologue that I wish existed in the political realm — a figure truly driven by concerns for people caught in real situations, people in alternative family units that need someone thinking about them and their rights to live and love each other, free from condemnation and judgment. In The Family proves that family knows no bounds. (tt stern-enzi)