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In the Family
In Theaters: 11/04/2011
On Video: 06/25/2013
By: Christopher Null
In the Family
He fought the law. Guess who wins.
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Let me tell you about this movie. It’s the story of  a gay man who fights for custody of a child — the son of his now-deceased partner, whom he sired in a prior (hetero) marriage.

Don’t stop reading and roll your eyes. This is an amazing piece of work, a quiet, introspective indie film that will have you rethinking everything you believe about child custody — regardless of which side of the gay marriage debate you’re on.

Patrick Wang writes, directs, and stars in the film. An Asian-American with a thick southern accent, his folksy way is initially off-putting, almost like he’s joking around. But his Joey is truly a friendly, well-meaning professional, and he clearly has a close bond with Cody (Sebastian Banes), a single dad with a young son named Chip (Trevor St. John). Everything goes to hell when — and this is unfortunately spoiling the film just a little — Cody dies in an accident, leaving Joey and Chip alone.

Well, not quite alone. There’s the matter of Cody’s family and a will he wrote years ago, which grant custodial rights over chip to Cody’s sister. Written well before Cody and Joey were a couple, the will is clearly out of date, but the law is the law, and Cody’s next move — in fact, the bulk of the (lengthy) film — involves his legal quest to become Chip’s guardian.

This goes about as well as you expect, a horrific battle that dredges up all manner of questions from family members and lawyers a-plenty. While it looks initially like Cody’s family has accepted his conversion from straight to gay, cracks in that armor quickly become evident. A scene in which Joey gives a deposition, in which his past is laid bare for the record, is one of the most painful you’re likely to see all year.

In the end, Wang’s meditation on how unmarried gay partners contend with child custody issues is only part of the story, and although we definitively side with Joey, it’s not completely clear what will or even should happen to Chip in the end. That ending — a long time coming — feels a bit forced, though it is at least satisfying to the soul.

Wang’s filmmaking deserves special notice. It is driven by long, quiet shots, often with little to no movement or even any characters in the scene. Combined with Joey’s quiet and introspective manner, it’s a disarming way to present a disarming subject. I’m already curious to see how Wang, who wrapped this movie in 2011, will follow it up.