Festival audience loves 'In the Family'

One of the most well-received films so far in the 2013 Ebertfest is "In the Family," directed, written and produced by Patrick Wang.

He also stars in the movie, shown Thursday at the Virginia Theatre, as Joey Williams, a gentle, Asian-American contractor who lives with Cody, played by Trevor St. John, and Cody's young son, Chip, played by a remarkably gifted Sebastian Banes.

One festival-goer tweeted after Wang's appearance on the Virginia stage that the director was "the rock star" of the festival. Another called his movie "riveting and relevant" and said people were hugging her after it ended.

I had predicted after interviewing Wang by phone a couple of weeks ago that he would be beloved by the end of the festival.

Though he insists he is not like the character he plays in "In the Family," Wang, a 36-year-old graduate of M.I.T., comes off that way.

He was pleased with the Ebertfest reception of his 2011 movie — his directorial debut in film. He has a background in theater and founded a theater company after graduating from M.I.T.

He also was impressed by the size of the newly renovated Virginia Theatre, which now seats 1,426, down from 1,525.

"I never felt so simultaneously close to and distant from my audience," Wang quipped when he came on stage.

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, who handled the Q-and-A with Wang and actor Trevor St. John, said while watching Wang's movie he "felt externally" as he did when viewing "Kramer vs. Kramer," the 1979 film about a couple's divorce and its impact, particularly on their young son, who's around the same age as Chip.

But in "In the Family," the child custody dispute comes about a bit differently and is told more obliquely, in slow-reveal style.

"The subjects of race and gay marriage never come up as subjects or words," Barker noted.

And though the movie feels personal and intimate, Wang said it is not autobiographical or based on people he knows.

"This film just came as a force," he said. "I find other people and their lives more interesting than my own."

He does include elements from his own life, though, in his writing. (He's written three more screenplays since finishing "Family."

"I have good parents. I've seen love and all these wonderful things. But I like to free myself of details and come up with new ones," Wang said.

Barker said Wang also cast a few great actors in his first film, among them Brian Murray, a well-known New York stage actor and member of the Theater of Hall of Fame. Murray — Wang said he's always admired his work — plays a Southern lawyer who comes out of retirement to help Joey Williams in his child custody dispute with Cody's family.

Wang set the story in a Tennessee town. As Joey Williams, he speaks in a credible Southern accent. One reason: He grew up in Houston, Tex. He now lives in New York.

Also on stage with Wang, St. John and Barker was Kevin Lee, one of Roger Ebert's "Far-Flung Correspondents," whose writings he features at http://www.rogerebert.com.

Lee described "In the Family" as a "spacious" movie with slow and deliberate scenes that make viewers feel as if they are in the same room as the characters.

Lee said the 169-minute has 280 shots compared to the 800 in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," a bit shorter at 150 minutes.

With the many cuts and different shots in "Lincoln," "You're being told what to look at," Lee said.

St. John said being in Wang's movie was an actor's dream because Wang took risks and allowed his actors to do the same.

"He trusted me and let me go," St. John said. "That, again, is a situation you dream of. He allowed things to happen as they do happen. It's a very respectful way to work.

"He also respects his audience and lets things happen in human time. It was a real pleasure."

New Yorker Films will release "In the Family" on DVD at the end of June, according to Barker.

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