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The Fight for the Modern Family

Good Works Film Festival brings In the Family, and its director, to Eugene

Filmmaker Peter Wang’s In the Family came to him in a mental flash. “I had a glimpse of this family, the family at the center of the movie — two dads playing soccer with their kids,” Wang tells EW. It seems simple; a fleeting spark that captures the imagination, but Wang’s feature-length directorial debut tackles some complex issues — death, same-sex partnership in the South, guardianship, a custody battle — and it does so with unconventional filmmaking. 

In the last five years, there has been significant progress on the queer rights front: the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, nine states recognize same-sex marriage as of November 2012, federal courts are chipping away at the Defense of Marriage Act, and the U.S. Supreme Court will be reviewing DOMA this spring. The fight is nowhere near over, specifically when it comes to couples raising children together in states that do not legally recognize same-sex unions, like Tennessee, where In the Family unfolds. Take that a step further; what happens to the child when the biological parent in a same-sex union dies? Thus far, Hollywood’s treatment of same-sex households is tied up in one film: The Kids Are Alright — a deft but ultimately surface portrayal of two women raising teenagers in an affluent and liberal California suburb. 

In the Family, brought to Eugene by the Good Works Film Festival, takes a long look at the messier side of this issue in a place where the law and the culture don’t match modern-day family (and Modern Family) values, through the eyes of the carpenter Joey Wilson (played by Wang) as he fights with the family of his belated partner, Cody, for the custody of their son Chip. And while this story needs to be told, long is the key word here, as the film clocks in at two hours and 49 minutes. 

“It’s a longer film and the cutting style is different,” Wang says. He points out that in your typical mainstream movie fare, one take lasts on average two to four seconds; In the Family’s average take is 30 seconds. There is a certain cinéma vérité quality that is refreshing; life doesn’t pass in tidy, snappy clips and the film doesn’t pander to the short attention span that most big studios believe that audiences have. But the story does require patience; dialogue is sparse, and at times clumsy, and the most compelling scene is hit after the two-hour mark in an all-at-once malicious and touching courtroom deposition. 

But most importantly, Wang explains, the film is an exercise in empathy rather than a political crusade. “I’m one of those people who believe that politics is meaningful as long as we don’t lose sight of people’s lives,” he says. ν

In the Family screens at the Bijou 7 pm Saturday, March 16, and 1 pm and 5 pm Sunday, March 17. All screenings will be followed by a Q&A with director Patrick Wang. Visit goodworksfilmfestival.org for more information.