During a recent trip to Palm Strings, we picked up, in a charming book and gift shop called Just Fabulous, a handy little book: 101 Things I Learned in Film School by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick. It’s a short and sweet reminder of key tenets of filmmaking.

After seeing In the Family, I wondered if I ought to throw the book out.

It was the briefest of considerations: the tips in the book are time-honored for good reasons. Filmmakers who successfully break them do so by understanding them.

In the Family breaks a lot of rules, boldly, with quietly spectacular results. It’s three hours long but has precious little fat. It doesn’t end scenes where it’s “supposed” to. It locks down the camera for long take after long take, and often excludes traditionally vital elements of the scene — say, the actors’ faces — from the frame, with the result of making the setting, and thus the characters who inhabit it, more real. It strays dangerously into Lifetime-movie territory with its plot but emerges clean of melodrama — and is all the more heartrending for it; the studious way it avoids tears make the ones it generates in the audience more genuine and true.

Issues without labels

The first-time director, Patrick Wang, also the writer and star, is self-distributing this film, which has struggled to find the attention in merits after being rejected by a slew of film festivals (which says more about film-fest politics and their unspoken checklists than about the movie). Set in Martin, Tenn., with accents that range from Wang’s spot-on soft drawl to some borderline over-the-top ones, it lays out what happens after an unassuming man named Joey loses Cody, his partner of six years and birth father to Chip, the kid they have raised together. Joey and Cody were never married in the eyes of the law. That winds up mattering big-time.

One rule the movie breaks, which was long overdue to be broken, is that despite the hot-button topics of the storyline (I happened to see this movie the day the Supreme Court said it’s taking up Prop 8 and DOMA), it casts aside sloganeering and labels. The word “gay” is never used. Joey’s Asian heritage is only a factor in the most subtle of ways. The movie, like its hero, refuses to demonize. Which is much of how both succeed.

Rule stretching

In its aversion to waving flags, the movie may break the rules of your expectations. But as for the rules of filmmaking, it turns out, the movie doesn’t really break the important ones; it imbues them with a deeper understanding. Let’s go to the book:

Start [and end] late.

Says the book, filmmakers “will often find that a scene is strengthened by cutting the first two, and often last two, lines of dialogue.” Which is decidedly not what happens in Joey’s kitchen when his gal pals arrive to rally behind him. The situation stirs outrage, Joey is comforted, and one woman spits the perfect bit of venom to end the scene on.

The scene keeps going.

This happens once more in this scene, and similarly in others. It throws you, but the verisimilitude is worth it. These gatherings of intimates feel more like those in real life — you don’t leave your best friends’ party just because the perfect bon mot has been tossed — and truth and emotion are revealed in the lingering. The lengthy (but never tiring) scenes in this movie know when they’re done. It’s just not when we’ve been trained to expect them to be done.

A flawed protagonist is more compelling than a perfect protagonist.

It’s hard to find a flaw in Joey, unless you’re willing to count not being savvy about business matters. (Sounds more like a virtue, doesn’t it?) Joey is something we rarely see in a lead character: a truly decent guy. We are taught that this is boring in movies, but here it is anything but. It is essential to the movie’s power. Joey is caring, patient, and says little more than needs saying. He listens to people. It’s weird. And wonderful.

Beware children, animals, and liquids!

Good advice, assuredly, but in Sebastian Brodziak, Wang has found one of the best child actors of the year, right up there with Pierce Gagnon in Looper. Brodziak’s acting is the best kind: invisible. It just seems as if some kid has wandered into the frame (a documentary effect achieved without resorting to trendy twitchy-cam, thank the gods). He gets through long stretches of dialogue so mumble-fluidly you wonder if they were improvised (they weren’t, said the director in Q&A after the screening), but his best performance, in the movie’s best scene (after the funeral, in the kitchen framed in a repeated way that comes to feel like home), has only one word.

Show, don’t tell.

The climactic scene — which, in a novel but believable twist, is not quite the big court showdown you’d expect — is a long, long tell. Joey talks about himself, Chip, and Cody. But it works because the movie lands Joey in a position of having to show himself, to people who claim to love him but never really wanted to see him. It is one of a couple of instances in the film (the other being an instance of eavesdropping on a story Joey recorded for Chip) where reflex suggests that seeing what is being told would be more powerful — yet, it is the telling that drives things home.

Make it shorter.

Despite the long running time, almost nothing is superfluous. You could even make a case for putting in some scenes that are only referred to, but it’s clear the inclusions and exclusions are beyond deliberate. Its gait is truly unusual, but In the Family is one of the most surefooted films around.

In the end, a flip through the filmmaking book confirms that In the Family follows the rules better than formulaic films: conceal the action … control the back-story … have a strong but … every scene must contain conflict … make setting a character … leave breathing room … acting speaks louder than words. All of these are among the many potent weapons in this film’s formidable, subtly surprising arsenal. Find out where it’s showing near you, and be blown away.