Fittingly for self-distributed works by a true American independent, Patrick Wang’s four features to date stand tall with a graceful and tenacious outsiderdom. Their handmade quality and occasional rough edges may have made them a hard sell, but this seems unfair. There’s a collectivist spirit, moral conviction and self-taught experimentalism at work here – the latter given increasing room to express itself as Wang has gradually untethered himself from realism – that demands attention.
Especially impressive is Wang’s 2011 debut In the Family (****) – starring Wang himself as Joey Williams, a Texan interior designer whose partner Cody (Trevor St John) is killed in a car accident. Cody’s will, written long before their relationship, states that his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) should act as guardian to Chip (a beautifully instinctive performance by Sebastian Banes), his six-year-old son by his previous heterosexual marriage. This leaves the devastated Joey, himself a foster kid, flailing for legal options to preserve his relationship with Chip.
Wang – also a theatre director – likes to squat naturalistically in Joey’s household with signature middle-distance long takes. While this makes the 160-minute In the Family a testing prospect, the intimacy he fosters pays off, because you fully comprehend what Joey is fighting for. Wang’s understated approach to this Asian-American life is somewhat similar to last year’s Minari: racism (or homophobia, for that matter) is never explicitly mentioned as the reason why his in-laws suddenly cold-shoulder him. But prejudice subtly lingers in the vicinity: the hospital officiously bars him from visiting Cody in intensive care. As Wang subtly intensifies the style, the legal sparring builds into something truly engrossing and that wields a wily humanistic force. The lesson here is that people power and communication are worth more than systems and legal processes. “Those limits can be distracted. So don’t head straight for them,” says the gentleman lawyer who comes to Joey’s aid. The deposition scene in which Joey displays unflappable southern aplomb deserves to be a legal genre classic.
Shorter but offering less substance is 2015’s The Grief of Others (**), adapted from a novel by Leah Hager Cohen. It’s another household affair, with Trevor St John returning; he plays the paterfamilias of the Ryries, who are close to breaking point after a horrific postpartum event. Wang cranks up the formalism here, with the opening stages scattered among various family members and bystanders cradling various degrees of personal agony, and interlude scenes shot red-filtered from the perspective of the deceased. But the drama constantly struggles to grasp the central nub of the trauma, caught between flat behavioural sequences (in which everything is subtext) and ragged melodramatic confessionals.
Wang’s theatrical roots are given full rein in the two halves of the playful but empowering 2018 comedy-drama A Bread Factory, an almost Altman-esque sojourn with the team behind a community performing arts centre in the fictional town of Checkford. But Wang is also a former economist, and A Bread Factory Part One: For the Sake of Gold (***) diligently examines the civic value of art. That’s what lesbian couple Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry), who run the Bread Factory, have to make a case for when a swish rival outfit across town tries to gazump their funding on the back of their new Chinese performance art duo, May Ray. Wang is clearly having great fun with this pair of po-faced chancers, spoofing vapid conceptual pomposity; the same goes for the Chekhov parody performed by one of Bread Factory crew, and another vignette in which a Hollywood heartthrob swans into town. Wang retains the observational neutrality of his other features, but the manic theatricality on stage constantly overflows from the proscenium into the real-life scenes.
Wang is clearly a believer in the mutually reinforcing cycle of life and art. A Bread Factory Part Two: Walk With Me a While (****) shows how it’s the work of places such as the Bread Factory to unearth the latter in the former, when the team find a star performer for their production of Euripides’ Hecuba working at a local cafe. By now, the artifice is running amok all over Checkford: a pair of warhorse thespians slip into Russian melancholia over the samovar; cafe patrons tap-dance out their smartphone frustrations; Wes Anderson-style stop-motion sequences show the development work in progress on the play; a clutch of rough and ready chorus-line songs (most written by Wang).
But amid this representational frenzy, it’s the simplicity of the Hecuba sequences – spellbindingly performed by Henry and the waitress-turned-actor Teresa (Jessica Pimintel)– that tip the balance back in favour of realism; a sober reminder that the purpose of all this creation is to find truth. As Greta and Dorothea struggle in the rehearsal room and in their private lives, Wang implies that the real worth of art is in giving us the strength to strive and persist. The fact that the box office take for both parts of The Bread Factory combined was $17,325 only proves his point.