PG Score: 7.5/10
Uncle Frank is available for streaming on Amazon Prime
Uncle Frank is a powerfully effective drama that leaves a lasting impression. While its execution is occasionally trite, the final product delivers a genuinely inspiring message.
The film takes place in 1973 and follows Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany) and his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), on a road trip from New York back to their fictional hometown of Creekville, South Carolina after the death of a family member. Along the way, they are surprised by Frank’s boyfriend, Walid (Peter Macdissi).
Given the Deep South backdrop in the 1970s, religion plays a large role in the struggles Frank faces as a closeted gay man. Growing up in the ‘30s and ‘40s in a devout community, he was forced to harbor this secret out of fear. As soon as he was able, he relocated to New York and kept his visits back home to a bare minimum. Apart from one or two exceptions, his true sexual orientation falls somewhere between the realm of unknown and unspoken as far as his family is concerned.
To sustain the illusion that he is straight, he even goes as far as to invite his brother, Mike (Steve Zahn), and sister-in-law, Kitty (Judy Greer), to his Manhattan apartment to meet a fabricated girlfriend. The first act of Uncle Frank paints a vivid picture of what the titular character is up against and hints at unresolved issues he will have to face during his reluctant homecoming.
Writer/Director Alan Ball (American Beauty and Six Feet Under) tackles stigmas surrounding the LGBTQ+ community with a keen eye. He nimbly sidesteps many of the tropes common among the genre and implements a revitalizing approach. The conversations between characters feel very down-to-earth and have a healthy balance between lighthearted banter and passionate interactions. Ball explores the mountain of an obstacle that coming out can be and the many hurdles that can make it that much more difficult. He wisely tells the tale through Beth’s eyes and this perspective provides a unique lens to the unfolding story.
Paul Bettany has long been a severely underrated and versatile actor. His ability to expertly portray both a convincing villain and an endearing protagonist place him among the elite names in the business. His work in Uncle Frank is one of the more impressive performances on his decorated resume. Frank is a damaged individual who suffers from past trauma along with the constant pressure of having to maintain a façade for his family. He is plagued by the incapacity to be true to himself in the company of his kin and the toll it takes on every ounce of his being is masterfully conveyed through Bettany. The character bottles up so much, so often and it is alarmingly apparent that he is a ticking time bomb. The ensuing explosions showcase the movie’s most emotionally charged sequences along with its best acting.
Rising star Sophia Lillis shines alongside Bettany’s Frank as his beloved niece, Beth. The two characters are extremely close and share a palpably heartwarming bond that speaks to the chemistry of both actors. Beth greatly admires her uncle and frequently leans on him for advice. When the audience is first introduced to her, she is a shy and wide-eyed 14-year-old. After the movie jumps four years into the future, her emotional and intellectual growth is quite evident, and this is partially due to Frank's life lessons.
Lillis depicts the burgeoning confidence and sharp wit of now 18-year-old Beth with utter bravado. Considering this is another striking performance to add to a handful already under her belt, the sky is the limit for the accomplished actress.
The acting chops of Peter Macdissi inject Uncle Frank with some much-needed comic relief. He plays Frank’s boyfriend, Walid, and reels off his jocular lines effortlessly. Given the heavy subject matter the movie wrestles with, a humorous character backed by a talented actor is a welcome sight. It helps that Macdissi also excels in the more serious exchanges and works particularly well with Bettany in some of the film’s more fervent scenes.
The majority of the well-paced 95-minute runtime manages to capture an authentic essence and venture into familiar territory with a fresh tread. Unfortunately, a great deal of the climax does dip its toes into the cliché end of the pool. Much of the resolution feels too on the nose and there is a sense that Ball is simply checking the boxes. For a movie that dedicates so much care to tactfully examining LGBTQ related topics, the ending seems a bit hackneyed.
Quality Acting and Direction
Alan Ball’s finesse as a filmmaker is on full display for much of his latest outing. While he does lose some momentum in the closing act, the negatives are largely mitigated by exemplary acting, well-placed comic relief, and poignant writing. Uncle Frank is highly deserving of an invite to every family gathering this Thanksgiving.