FAKE IT SO REAL (UNRATED)
cast & creditsFourth Row Films presents a documentary directed by Robert Greene. Running time: 95 minutes. No MPAA rating.
"Fake It So Real" filled me with affection for its down-and-out heroes, a group of semi-pro wrestlers in Lincolnton, N.C. On Saturday nights, they rent a hall, construct their own ring, set out the folding chairs, stage a wrestling show, take the ring apart, truck it away and start talking about next week. For this labor, one of them jokes, they get "20 bucks, a hot dog and a pat on the ass."
There are 12 or 14 wrestlers, and together they comprise the entire Millennium Wrestling Federation, which seems to feature a title bout for its World Championship every few weeks. They have physical and relationship problems, most of them seem unemployed or in low-paying jobs, but for one shining night of the week they are stars. They have onstage personas, design their own flashy costumes, and play out scenarios of grudges, ferocity and bad-ass moves. One says he knew he'd made it when three little girls asked him for his autograph.
This is show business. Is that why I liked them so much? In some circles, they might be seen as losers, but they have taken admirable steps to bring about their dreams. During the week, they post flyers for the weekly match in gas stations and convenience stores, meet daily to rehearse and collaborate on scenarios, and in the honorable tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, what they're essentially doing is renting an old barn and putting on a show.
Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" (2008), the Mickey Rourkemasterpiece, was about wrestlers performing in marginal, low-rent matches. Compared to these guys, they were flying first class. Their stardom in the ring is compensation for bad luck in other areas, trouble with wives and girlfriends, economic hardship and a great deal of physical pain. Of that there's no doubt. Yes, it's true the fights are "fixed and faked," in the sense that the script and the winner are decided in advance. But let's say the script calls for an opponent to lift you over his head and slam you down on the mat, climb onto the ropes and body slam you. What part of that, exactly, is not real?
The members of the federation all seem to be nice guys. Robert Greene's camera follows them through seven days before a big match, and we get to know them. Many felt like outsiders until they found this family. One has a disproportionately big butt and was bullied about it in school. "I said, God, you gave me this big ass, now show me how to use it," he says. On the back of his shorts are bright red lips inviting his opponent to kiss his ass.
One has asthma. One has an infection and is about to miss his first match in several years. One, Chris Solar, was born prematurely with his intestines and internal organs outside his body; that's why he lacks a navel. All are muscular enough for the considerable demands of wrestling, but many are overweight. One explains, "I'm in training. I smoke Marlboro Lights."
The best body belongs to the rookie, Gabriel Croft, a clean-cut kid who looks like Matt Damon. He gets a lot of instruction and encouragement from the veterans, who wonder if he has the right stuff. He plays a character named the Angel Gabriel and gets some homophobic kidding, but homophobia is the water in which they all swim. There is a tenderness in the way they punish one another.
As show biz, this is bottom rung. They play music from their own collections. They use Radio Shack brand strobe lights. One "villain" wears a dime-store Halloween mask. Admission is $5 (kids are free), and at the weekly show, the crowd may be loyal and loud, but it's small. The rent for their venue, which looks like a school auditorium, is $240, and that would take 48 tickets to cover it. There must not be a lot left over. The possibility exists that they're wrestling at a net loss to themselves.
Greene, the documentarian, is a cousin of Chris Solar. He likes these guys and doesn't take cheap shots. The Rourke film contained a lot of painkiller use and illegal steroids. There are no drugs seen or referred to in this film, and my guess is they can't afford them. There is a rough nobility in the way they strive for fame and success. The film is alive at every moment. I'd like to attend one of their matches, but having seen this film, I might find it too painful — and I'm not talking about physical pain.
IN THE FAMILY (UNRATED)
Patrick Wang and Travor St. John in "In the Family."
cast & creditsJoey Patrick Wang
Cody Trevor St. John
Chip Sebastian Banes
Paul Brian Murray
Sally Park Overall
Dave Peter Hermann
New Yorker Films presents a film written and directed by Patrick Wang. Running time: 169 minutes. No MPAA rating.
"In the Family" centers on one of the notable performances I've seen — if, indeed, it is a performance. Perhaps Patrick Wang is exactly like that. Then he must be a very good man. He wrote, directed and stars in the film, but it's not a one-man show. It is about the meaning of "family." This is his first feature, and may signal the opening of an important career.
Wang plays Joey Williams, a Chinese-American man who has been living happily for about five years with Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) and Cody's 6-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Chip's mother died in childbirth. Some months after that, to his own surprise, Cody fell in love with Joey, and they're raising Chip. This household is given enough screen time to establish it as a happy, healthy place.
Then Cody is killed in an accident. Chip stays with Joey, whose treatment of him is a study in wisdom and love. The boy is so irrepressibly joyous that we sense what a happy life he has led. But Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) reveals that her brother left a will years ago, granting her all of his property and custody of his child. This will, written after the death of Cody's wife and before he met Joey, has never been updated.
On Thanksgiving Day, Joey drops the boy off at the sister's house and never sees him again. A lawyer in his Tennessee town tells him flatly he doesn't have a child custody case, and no judge in the state will rule in his favor. Neither this lawyer nor anyone else ever uses the words "homosexual" or "gay." It isn't in any sense a "gay rights" film, nor is it an "Asian-American" film. It is about a father and son who have been separated against their wishes.
Its objectivity in these terms is possible because of Wang's extraordinary performance. I've been unable to discover any details about him, but he speaks in a relaxed, natural Tennessee accent and creates Joey as a particularly convincing character, a contractor who drives a red pickup truck. (Cody was a schoolteacher.) His own parents died when he was very young. He was adopted by foster parents, who gave him their name, and who died when he was a teenager. As a man of Asian birth who has been raised apart from other Asians, as an orphan and a foster child who for years had no family, we sense how important stability and continuity are to him.
And there is something else. Without ever making a point of it, he has been treated as an outsider. Wang, as director, indicates this by several scenes with the back of the character's head to the camera, so that we see the other characters from his POV, instead of seeing Joey mixed in visually. He is not a hothead, not neurotic, not psychologically damaged, but in this crisis, the entire basis of his being has been challenged. Having seen Cody, we can feel certain he would have granted custody to Joey if he had ever made another will. Cody's sister doesn't see it that way. What does she think about homosexuality? She never says.
Joey's case looks hopeless. Friends try to console him, but helplessly. He's working on a house for a local attorney who has an ornate law library, and he reveals his skills in bookbinding — an art learned from his foster father. This attorney, Paul Hawks (the authoritative and wise Brian Murray), offers his help and observes there may be no help within the court system but there may be a more human path around it.
Then follows a scene of legal depositions, during which Patrick Wang's performance, in long takes that feel entirely spontaneous, recounts his life story. Joey's response to the offensively hostile attorney for the other side is masterful: He humiliates the other man simply by being a good person and telling the truth.
"In the Family" is a long film, and truth to tell, could have been made shorter. (One dimly lit confrontation between Joey and a key participant seems unnecessary.) That said, I was completely absorbed from beginning to end. What a courageous first feature this is, a film that sidesteps shopworn stereotypes and tells a quiet, firm, deeply humanist story about doing the right thing. It is a film that avoids any message or statement and simply shows us, with infinite sympathy, how the life of a completely original character can help us lead our own.