Exactly one day before the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling on the Defense Of Marriage Act, the indie sleeper In The Family quietly arrived on DVD and Blu-ray. That’s a coincidence, but a serendipitous one: With the debate about same-sex marriage—and, by extension, the changing face of the American family—back at the center of the public discourse, now’s the perfect time to discover (or rediscover) Patrick Wang’s humanistic debut. A shining example of the political made personal, In The Family certainly has a perspective; it’s an emphatic and empathetic plea for equality, but one that rarely resorts to lectures or speeches. Even the film’s big, climactic monologue avoids outright sermonizing, so loose and conversational is its delivery.
Casting himself in the lead, Wang is terrifically naturalistic as a Tennessee contractor whose world is shattered when his lover (Trevor St. John) dies in a car accident. The two men have a 6-year-old son (Sebastian Brodziak), the biological child of the deceased, and though they took equal part in raising him, the kid’s aunt (Kelly McAndrew) doesn’t respect Wang’s claim to fatherhood—and the law is on her side. On paper, all of that may sound like a recipe for movie-of-the-week histrionics, but In The Family neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of melodrama. All of the characters, even the ostensible villains, are provided with complex motivations. Rather than demonize McAndrews, for example, Wang takes great care to demonstrate how difficult the decision is for her, and how it springs from a (misguided) belief that she’s doing what's right for Brodziak. Even the bigoted lawyer who refuses to take Wang’s case is given a couple of shades to play.
In both a micro and a macro sense, patience is the film’s defining characteristic. At close to three hours, In The Family takes its time laying out its conflicts and relationships; the custody battle doesn’t even begin until almost an hour into the movie. The moment-by-moment pacing is often slow and steady, too: There is a scene at the emergency room, which carefully establishes how both St. John’s family and the hospital staff treat Wang, and the first scene after the funeral deftly indicates—through a single take, in which Brodziak draws Wang out of his grief bubble with an act of kindness—that this family can survive the tremendous loss it’s suffered. Favoring long, unbroken master shots, Wang aligns himself more clearly with contemporary schools of Asian and European cinema than recent waves of American indie film. Free of whimsy, frenetic editing, and improvised chatter, In The Family bears little resemblance to what festivalgoers stumble across every year at South By Southwest, for example. It bucks trends and expectations.
The film had an unconventional path to theaters, too. Rather than working the festival circuit, Wang took basically the same route Shane Carruth did with Upstream Color, distributing the film himself and appearing for post-screening Q&As. In The Family’s weeklong run in New York, circa the fall of 2011, garnered little attention. Undeterred, Wang brought the film to other cities in 2012. Before it opened in Chicago, he reached out directly to local critics, offering unsolicited screeners. Remarkably, his strategy worked: In one of his final acts of see-this-sleeper advocacy, Roger Ebert called In The Family a “courageous first feature” and wrote a glowing, four-star review. The role critics played in the movie’s (modest) success is widely reflected on the DVD and Blu-ray—also filmmaker-funded—which includes a Criterion-style booklet of reviews and several video essays. (The best of them, by critic Kevin B. Lee, touches on representation, noting how bracing it is to see a protagonist who’s gay and Asian American with a thick Southern drawl.)
In The Family is far from perfect: Its lack of affectation sometimes plays as an affectation, and a few minutes could have surely been shaved off its epic running time. Yet Wang’s commitment to letting a scene breathe pays off immensely in the film’s aforementioned, cliché-demolishing climax—a legal showdown built on an unusually hopeful belief in progress by way of discourse. Can hearts and minds really be changed through honest emotional appeal? Wang seems to believe they can. Only time will tell if, on a cultural scale, his idealism is prescient or simply naïve.
New this week:
Italian-horror buffs, rejoice! Kino releases remastered editions of two Mario Bava classics. Black Sabbath, from which the heavy-metal giants took their name, is a three-part anthology film featuring Boris Karloff and Michèle Mercier. Notably, the Kino package includes only the original Italian cut of the film, not the American theatrical version, which not only shuffled the order of the segments, but also turned a sapphic thriller into a slightly incoherent ghost story. (Karloff’s famous baritone, dubbed into Italian here, is the only reason to seek out the U.S. cut.) Shot in 1974 but unseen by audiences until 1997, the violent noir Kidnapped (or Rabid Dogs, as it was originally titled) was allegedly one of Bava’s favorites of his own films. Similarities between its robbery-gone-awry narrative and the plot of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs are surely not accidental.
Another relic of the early ’70s, Ralph Bakshi’s animated NYC odyssey Heavy Traffic arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory. Like the director’s previous work, the R. Crumb adaptation Fritz The Cat, the film scored an X rating from the MPAA. Meanwhile, Criterion reissues Peter Brook’s Lord Of The Flies, with a new 4K transfer and a whole slew of additional extras.
The sometimes-stirring baseball biopic 42 (Warner Bros.), about Jackie Robinson’s first year in the big leagues, also slides into stores. It’s the most high profile of this week’s crop of contemporary releases, which is heavy on genre fare. While Anchor Bay drops a pair of duds—the Aaron Eckhart Euro-action flick Erased and the pulp-magazine adaptation Solomon Kane—Sony gives home-video viewers a chance to compare the messy massacres of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead to the more inventive splatter of Sam Raimi’s original. Consider instead Walter Hill’s Bullet To The Head (Warner Bros.), which culminates with a battle-ax battle between Sly Stallone and Jason Momoa.