“This film is an evergreen,” said Michael Barker, an unusually soulful movie executive from Sony Pictures Classics. He was speaking to the Ebertfest faithful after a screening of Patrick Wang’s IN THE FAMILY Thursday night. He was right. I was so stunned, moved and inspired after seeing the film, I could hardly speak. Feels like it will stay with me for a lifetime.
Before the film, Barker put it even more perfectly: “This is a film that was made for Ebertfest.” If you want to know the plot, go elsewhere. All I will tell you is that, in a time when it seems as if the entire country is spiraling into chaos and hostility, IN THE FAMILY shows a simple (but not easy) way through and around America’s complex problems. It’s safe to say that M.I.T.-educated Wang is a genius at screenwriting, acting and directing on this, his first film, but this is no cold tower of analysis or style. Wang offsets a formal rigor that could make Robert Bresson feel like a slob with an appreciation and respect for his characters. The margins of Wang’s frame are the margins of society, where beautiful, terrible things are happening in silence.
Enough of the film critic-speak. I cried a few honest cries during this movie, and was shaken with a feeling so tough to conjure up in modern times, the feeling that we are a family, all of us–a broken, dysfunctional family, true, but a family. We avoid each other on the flimsiest of pretexts, at our peril. Kevin Lee said as much to Wang during the Q&A after the screening, and he could barely hold back the tears while connecting the dots between the film’s storytelling and the social vision Roger had for this festival. Kevin further demonstrated the lesson by acknowledging that it wasn’t a prestigious film festival or publication that first brought this under-appreciated, self-distributed movie to Roger’s attention, but his personal assistant, Carol Iwata. There’s a tough, fiercely loyal character in IN THE FAMILY who reminds me of Carol. Quite a few characters in this film will remind you of good people you know.
The final scene offers hope for the small family it fretted over for three hours, but implicitly, lyrically, for our planetary extended family. Racism, for one thing, has broken my heart many times over in America, but the final scene of IN THE FAMILY gives us all a way out of this mess. It’s so simple. It seems as if Roger cried out for this movie when he wrote these passages in LIFE ITSELF:
“I began to realize that I had tended to avoid some people because of my instant conclusions about who they were and what they would have to say. I discovered that everyone, speaking honestly and openly, had important things to tell me.”
““I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”