‘Uncle Frank’ Review
Alan Ball has been behind such high-profile projects as Best Picture Oscar winner American Beauty (1999), “Six Feet Under,” and “True Blood”. This time, he is the writer-director-producer for Uncle Frank, a film that he partially based on his own father. Repressed homosexuality, alcoholism, death, and family dysfunction all play a role in a film that starts out beautifully insightful and then morphs into something totally different.
Paul Bettany stars as the titular Uncle Frank Bledsoe. When we first see Frank, he is the calm amidst the chaotic family gathering in their tiny hometown of Creekside, South Carolina. His 14-year old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis, It) serves as our narrator, and she quickly discloses her admiration for her favorite uncle. He’s a college professor at NYU, and the only adult “who looked me in the eye.” He even wore aftershave! The two are oddities in this family since they both love to read, have deep conversations, and can’t escape Creekside soon enough.
Beth is too sheltered to realize that Frank has kept his homosexuality a secret from the family. She’s shocked at how cross the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) acts toward his son Frank, which contrasts to his affinity for his other son, and Beth’s father, Mike (Steve Zahn). A terrific ensemble cast fills out the family: Margot Martindale as Mammaw Bledsoe (Frank’s mother), Judy Greer as Kitty (Mike’s wife), Lois Smith as Aunt Butch (Frank’s stuck-in-the-past Aunt), and Jane McNeill as Neva (Frank’s sister).
We flash forward 4 years and Beth is now a freshman at NYU, where her favorite uncle is a professor. Of course, it doesn’t take long before Frank’s secret is revealed, and Beth meets his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, who is director Alan Ball’s real-life partner) and their pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. When the call comes through that Daddy Mac has died, the film shifts to the road trip portion of the show, and the excellent tone set in the first half is shattered.
With a shift to Frank’s perspective, we experience his flashbacks to childhood and what caused the rift with his father. The memories of his first encounter with another boy turn horrific, and explain much about why Frank and his closed-minded father don’t have a relationship, and why Frank has a nasty history with booze. The road trip itself is enlivened thanks to the enthusiastic presence of Wally, a man with a good heart who tries to always be there for Frank. This is a coming-of-age trip for Beth, but her role is pretty quiet until the ending.
The story has elements of small-town conservatism contrasted with New York City, and the pent-up frustrations that accompany a life of closeted homosexuality and lack of honesty with one’s family. The bond of family outsiders could have been a full movie unto itself, but filmmaker Ball chose to explore numerous emotional points, rather than one. The unforgivable nature of Frank’s dad provides an emotional wallop that embraces the melodrama of the film’s second half. It’s sure to draw out tears from more than a few viewers, and a film that connects like that surely has something to say.
Uncle Frank is available on Amazon Prime.