When you’re a first-time independent creator of a labor-of-love film project, it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Roger Ebert waving a flag for you.
Happily, that’s one of the perks that have moved that project, “In the Family,” into the spotlight for writer-director-star Patrick Wang, who’ll be with his labor of love in person Saturday during the Normal Theater’s third annual Your Normal LGBT Festival.
Ebert’s 4-star, thumbs way-way-up rave — he calls Wang’s performance “one of the most notable I’ve ever seen” (which covers a lot of seeing) — has probably brought the film its highest-profile attention.
“I was completely absorbed from beginning to end,” concluded Ebert of the film, which runs close to three hours, somewhat unusual for such an intimate drama.
“I know it’s been a great help,” the second-generation Taiwanese-American says. “As I go to cities around the country, I get to talk to people and learn how they found out about the movie, and Ebert’s review is often mentioned.”
For the record, it’s not just the brand-name critic who raved; “In the Family” has also been praised around the country, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, and landed on more than 25 listings of 2011’s best films.
For his first film, the theater-trained Wang chose the hot-button issue of same-sex couples and child custody.
Set in a small town in Tennessee, the drama unfolds in the wake of a tragedy: Joey (played by Wang) is a gay man who loses his partner of several years, Cody (Trevor St. John, late of the soap “One Life to Live”), to a fatal accident.
Cody, who was formerly married and lost his wife in childbirth, brought his 6-year-old son Chip to the new relationship, with the boy coming to regard both men as his parents.
Enter Cody’s sister, who is awarded custody of Chip thanks to a legal document signed long ago, then forgotten. From there, the heart of the drama ensues, as Joey battles to regain custody of the boy, against a great many odds.
“Yes, the running time surprised me, but it’s exactly what the film needs,” says Wang of that near-three-hour length.
“The subject is well deserving of the time, and it seemed necessary in order to tell the story in a way that allows you to feel the experience. I think that’s what makes the film so different, and why it’s gotten the reaction it has.”
Wang has been accompanying the film to festivals and showings around the country for the past year, with no immediate end in sight.
“I like being with the audience and watching the film with them — it’s a way of getting to know the people who come to see.”
With his theater background, Wang is attuned to immediate audience response, and this, he agrees, is a way to achieve that in the more distancing film medium (the film was shot on 35mm by choice, he says, and will be screened that way at the Normal).
Wang describes “In the Family” as both “experimental and traditional,” with the former attribute stemming from its moving to its own rhythms. “In the first 20 minutes,” he says, “not a lot happens with the plot that is terribly complicated, and you can feel the resistance or awkwardness as the audience is getting used to this.”
Once past that point, though, Wang’s intimate drama exerts its hold and earns its right to last three hours (“every scene feels absolutely essential,” said the Hollywood Reporter’s review).
“One of the most interesting things for me has been to hear people who come in and weren’t disposed to like the film … and then they end up being surprised by it in a lot of ways,” says Wang.
At a glance
What: “In the Family,” with director-star Patrick Wang in attendance
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Normal Theater, 209 W. North St., Normal
Rest of the fest
In addition to Saturday night’s showing of “In the Family,” the third annual Your Normal LGBT Festival at the Normal Theater continues tonight, Friday and Sunday. Here’s the remaining lineup:
-- Tonight: “Kawa” (2010, 76 min.), a New Zealand drama about a Maori tribe man with a wife and family who must come to terms with his homosexuality after his father dies and leaves him heir to the tribe’s leadership.
-- Friday: “Cloudburst” (2011, 93 min.), with Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as an elderly lesbian couple who flee their nursing home and head to Canada, where they hope to marry.
-- Sunday: A double feature, with “Gayby” (2010, 89 min.) at 6 p.m., about a gay man and straight woman who decided to have a child together the old-school way; and “Scrooge & Marley” (2012) at 8 p.m., a sneak preview of a new Chicago-made twist on the holiday tale starring Tim Kazurinsky and Bruce Vilanch, with producer Tracy Baim in attendance.