Dir; Alan Ball. Starring; Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Pater Macdissi. Color. R. 95 min.
Writer/director Allan Ball has returned to the big screen with a brand new film about acceptance both between one another as well as from within. “Uncle Frank” shows that both sides of an issue can be bigoted and ashamed when it comes to the proverbial elephant in the room. That issue here is homosexuality.
The young Sophia Lillis (star of the hit “IT” remake) plays Beth, a young girl growing up in rural Georgia during the late 60’s who does not fit in with her family of closed minded hicks. We open with the family coming together to celebrate the birthday of Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). The women, spanning three generations, are all in the kitchen cooking. The men are all watching the Falcons game. It become apparent very quickly Daddy Mac is not a nice fellow as he screams the second the grandkids start playing in front of the television. None of this interests Beth so she stumbles upon the outlier of the family. That would be Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany).
Frank is on the porch with a cigarette whilst reading a classic novel. Turns out Beth has always respected Frank as he is a well known literary professor in New York and the only member of the family she ever felt a genuine relationship with. The eldest of the first generation of kids, Frank is constantly belittled by the other family members. When Daddy Mac looks at Frank’s birthday present he openly insults the man. Beth does not join in on the ridicule as she does not understand why everyone treats him the way that they do. Before he leaves, Frank gives a few great pieces of advice to Beth. Study hard because you do not have to go to the low-level local school and if you get knocked up make sure to come to him first before telling the rest of this rigid family.
Beth does just that with her studies and four years later gets into NYU. Her virgin small town mind is blown away by the big city. She meets her first boyfriend in Bruce (Colton Ryan). The guy seems charming, even telling her in the bedroom they should take things slow. Turns out he has other plans as he’s trying to use her in order to get to the esteemed Professor Frank. The two show up at a party the professor and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) are hosting. In one crazy night, Beth comes to understand why their family despises Frank. Lord have mercy, he’s gay! Waking up with her first ever hangover the young lady is cool with her uncle being “different”. Again, intelligence is more keen to acceptance people.
Then the bombshell drops. Angry Daddy Mac has died of a heart-attack. Not thinking straight, Beth’s grandmother refuses to allow the little girl to fly home as planes are dangerous in her closed minded view. So it is up to Uncle Frank to deliver the young girl safely during a road trip along the Atlantic Coast. Jack refuses his partner join them as he is still denying the truth about his sexuality to his family, even though they know for the most part. There are also several anti-gays in the mix going to the funeral of course.
Jack and Beth have a lovely drive at the beginning. Then Beth asks about her uncle’s first gay experience back in high school and the shame of what took place begins to weigh on the man as they cross state line after state line. The dread of facing his family yet again is beginning to build. And to make matters worse, Wally decided to secretly follow the two on the road. Not exactly Jack’s favorite thing, especially since the recovering alcoholic is clearly going to drink due to the stress of the situation and of course Wally will not always handle that in the best way. But Wally wants to try and support his man in the only way he knows how. All the time, Beth is learning how to be a person that is thrown into multiple levels of the term “AWKWARD”.
For starters, I am so glad that “Marvel” killed off Paul Bettany so that he could get back to doing real moviemaking. His portrayal of Uncle Frank runs the gamut of emotions that I cannot imagine any person could not relate to in at least one form or another. It ain’t just gays who have to keep things in the closet. If you are not willing to admit there was at minimum one time you avoided the act of introducing a particular significant other to the family because you were nervous then you’re either lucky or lying. Bettany’s performance has got to be a lock for an Oscar nomination.
I have never been a huge fan of Alan Ball’s work. Both “American Beauty” as well as “True Blood” were vastly overrated. Don’t think either of those projects have aged well. Do I need to bring up the ‘bag in the wind’ scene? But I will give him “Six Feet Under”. And now I would like to include “Uncle Frank” in his cannon of the excellent side of things. From beginning to end this picture is all about coming together when things seem at their worst. I will let you discover how much the final act breaks your heart and then gives you an unbelievable feeling of hope. Being human has nothing to do with race, creed, or sexual preference. Take it from me as a boring straight white dude. My father was a total dick. But when he died, I cried my ass off that night. Life ain’t easy. Being kind to others that are different should be, and “Uncle Frank” shows that even some, not all, but some can learn to accept that.