By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
From filmmaker Alan Ball (American Beauty, Towelhead, Six Feet Under) comes a moving and heartwarming film that is part coming-of-age and part coming to terms with the past. Ball offers some personal insight on the experience of being gay during the 1970s and what it is like to come from an ultra-conservative/Christian family in the South. Starring Paul Bettany and Sophia Lills, Uncle Frank examines the close relationship between an uncle and his niece, her discovery of her uncle’s true identity, and her realization of the personal struggles he has experienced throughout his life.
Bettany stars as the titular Uncle Frank Bledsoe. Teenager Beth Bledsoe has always had a warm and amiable relationship with her uncle, though there is much about his life that she doesn’t know. Intelligent, kind, but quite reserved, Uncle Frank has always had air of mystery surrounding him. Though he has never really fit in with the rest of the family, he has always been present for important family gatherings, despite the occasional mocking by her father and Frank’s younger brother Mike (Steve Zahn) and the seemingly cold and disdainful treatment he usually receives from patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root).
When Beth turns 18 and is ready for college, she decides to move to New York and attend the institution where her Uncle Frank is a professor. Not long after she begins her studies, she discovers something that most of the family back home doesn’t know. Uncle Frank is gay and is living with his lover Wallid (Peter Macdissi). Though surprised at first, Beth accepts her beloved uncle for who he is. The three of them get to bond on a road trip when Daddy Mac dies and both Frank and Beth must return home for the funeral. On the way home, Frank reflects upon some old memories that still torment him to this day.
Written and directed by Ball, Uncle Frank serves as a powerful examination of a character who has experienced fear and hate from people who should have loved him the most. As told mostly through Beth’s innocent perspective, the film offers a fresh take on this experience, as Beth realizes that Frank’s identity does not at all change the fact that he is a wonderful person. The story also presents a portrait of a man whose suffering has lead to self-loathing and self-destructive behavior.
Once again, Ball has written an extraordinary script with an outstanding development of its characters. As a director, Ball presents the story in a way that is both beautiful, and haunting, but with touches of hope and love. The result is a realistic film about a family coping with all of the unexpected turns and challenges that life has to offer.
I was first impressed with the acting talent of Sophia Lills when I enjoyed her performances as Beverly in It and It: Chapter Two. It came as no surprise that she shines beautifully as Beth in this film. Lills brings much heart and compassion to Beth with a charming awkwardness that feels perfect for the character.
Perhaps in an even more charming capacity, Peter Macdissi utilizes his natural charisma and wit as Frank’s lovable partner Wallid. Macdissi’s Wallid represents the ideal heart–the loving constant in Frank’s life and the unconditional love that all people should share with one another. His character is almost too perfect, but still works within a realistic setting.
As the title character, Paul Bettany gives a beautifully emotional performance. He makes Frank a lovable, eloquent and heartbreaking figure who struggles with the idea of love along with the fear and hatred he has encountered throughout his life–especially from within his own family. I think it is highly possible that Bettany, along with Macdissi and Lills, could all have a chance at some nominations next year.
I also feel that Alan Ball and his wonderful film Uncle Frank could have a good chance at some nominations as well. The movie is a small, unassuming affair, but one that should have a profound impact on anyone who has the pleasure of enjoying it. Uncle Frank will be available for streaming via Amazon Prime on November 25, 2020. Though it isn’t lighthearted family fare, it is a family movie that I feel most families (with mature members) should watch.