From a late-2012 San Francisco perspective, Any Day Now and In the Family feel profoundly anachronistic. Is it the films, which center on gay men fighting for the social acceptance and legal right to raise children in 1970s Los Angeles and present-day Tennessee (respectively), or is it your enlightened and trusted critic? I have to at least concede the possibility that I'm the one who's out of step, and that my (our?) evolved belief that gay parenting is a non-issue may not be universally endorsed by the majority of our fellow Americans. Then again, perhaps the Supreme Court's apparent reluctance to weigh in on gay marriage (the court may or may not take up the issue tomorrow) is a signal that they recognize the direction in which our society is moving.
My "education," notably a handful of documentaries on gay adoption, isn't everyone's, admittedly. (Generally, all it takes is one doc to soften long-held stances.) Nonfiction filmmakers nowadays regularly expose and examine social issues years before narrative filmmakers muster the moxie and financial backing, but the average multiplex-going movie fan isn't seeking out those movies. All of which is to acknowledge that I'm not the representative moviegoer -- nor, perhaps, are you.
That said, the films under discussion today absolutely contribute to the time-warp sensation. Based on a true story, Any Day Now takes place in the gay enclave of West Hollywood in 1979, where a loudmouth long-haired drag performer named Rudy (Alan Cumming, reveling in the brashness and sleaze of the period) ekes out a living lip-synching to melodramatic disco ballads in a gay club. In the course of an unusually action-packed 24 hours, he picks up a closeted, clean-cut assistant district attorney (Garret Dillahunt) and takes in Marco, the neglected and ultimately abandoned adolescent child of the junkie down the hall.
Marco has Down Syndrome, so he's in even greater need of protection, security and care than the average child. Rudy instantly accepts the challenge, and with his new legal-eagle boyfriend creates a home life and statutory strategy that serves Marco beautifully. (Purely on the basis of Cumming and Dillahunt's appearance, I found myself imagining if Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck had wanted to adopt a child.) Any Day Now acknowledges that Marco is a catalyst for Rudy to grow up, but the boy is unambiguously the central focus and main beneficiary of the domestic arrangement.
This entertaining, feel-good journey is shockingly interrupted by the criminal justice system, as Rudy and Paul are compelled to fight an uphill battle to retain custody of Marco. The case's low point is malfeasance on the part of the L.A. District Attorney that will remind some viewers of current D.A. Steve Cooley's heinous behavior vis a vis Deborah Peagler as revealed in the 2011 documentary, Crime After Crime. (There I go again, bring docs into the conversation.)
Any Day Now is a solidly entertaining social-issue picture that's propelled by the performances of the two leads and elevated by Cumming's rendition of a couple of torch songs. The film's emotional payoff is inextricably tied to Marco's fate, however. Red-state audiences may have trouble accepting Cumming's character, but even they won't be unmoved. Remember, even Scrooge couldn't resist Tiny Tim's humanity forever.
Patrick Wang's low-budget In the Family, set in the present in the Southern state of Tennessee, is simultaneously crystal-clear and confounding. The film is resolute in its generosity, even toward characters who behave atrociously, and unmistakable in its belief that decency and character can trump prejudice as well as the letter of the law. It asserts these admirable attitudes, and puts them over, despite a primitive level of filmmaking skill.
The film opens on a scene of prosaic domestic tranquility, with two dads and their young son, Chip, having breakfast and engaging in small talk. The entire film, in fact, with the exception of a couple brief and galvanizing moments where a character loses his temper and raises his voice, is prosaic and understated. Cassavetes, it's not.
The family unit dissolves in an instant, when one of the dads is fatally injured in an off-screen car accident. The stoic surviving father, Joey (played by the director, who also wrote the screenplay), assumes he'll carry on as a single father. His sister-in-law says otherwise, and she has a six-year-old will that names her executor of her brother's estate.
With the law on her side, Joey has no case for regaining custody of Chip. His only chance, he comes to see, isn't anger and retribution but a direct plea by way of a full, transparent recitation of his past, his character and his commitment to Chip. This takes the form of a lengthy monologue during a deposition that gently and inexorably pushes the elephant -- Joey's homosexuality -- out of the room.
In fact, the child who's in the middle of this fray is out of the picture as well, not only for this very long scene but for the crucial second half of the movie. It's not quite accurate to say that Chip's best interests are secondary to that of Joey, but Chip's fate clearly takes a back seat to the principles and attitudes at stake -- the big picture, if you will.
In the Family runs an epic 2 hours and 45 minutes, but it's not epic in any other sense of the word. Its attempt to reflect the dynamic of most relationships and the pace of real life (rather than life as portrayed in the movies), underscored by the near-total absence of music, doesn't suggest neorealism so much as an inability to shape, stage and shoot scenes. The movie could easily be trimmed without harm, mainly because Joey is a reactive, almost passive, character until he emerges in the deposition as breathtakingly self-assured and self-aware.
Somehow, unexpectedly, Wang's humanism overcomes his lack of filmmaking chops, and we forgive all his missteps and hesitations en route to the pivotal and, yes, dramatic scene in a law-firm conference room. Will filmgoers who aren't supportive of gay adoption, or gay marriage, be touched? Undoubtedly. Will they see it, especially in the South? That's the real question.
In the Family opens December 7, 2012 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose. Any Day Now opens December 14, 2012 at a Landmark theater in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.