I’m willing to wager that many of us have an “Uncle Frank” in our family. That “weird” uncle who’s not like the rest of the family. One whose intellect or life choices come in conflict with other members of the family, and makes for some odd and oftentimes tense familial get-togethers. And those uncles might be gay, which could be the root of the issues. In the new film, Uncle Frank, streaming this week on Amazon Prime Video, one such family deals with the issue of the “gay uncle,” and while the story itself is timeless, the feelings and emotions this film generates are not.
Uncle Frank stars Paul Bettany as Frank Bledsoe, a professor at NYU in the early 1970s. Frank was born and raised in South Carolina, and being a closeted gay man in the bible belt was not easy for him or his spiteful father, Mac (Stephen Root).
When Frank’s niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), shows signs of not wanting to stay in Creekville, South Carolina, and have a life rearing children for a man in a loveless marriage, Frank encourages her to expand her world, and strive for bigger things; to be who she wants to be. And she does so by getting accepted to NYU, leaving her small town behind for the big city. As she begins to experience her own path of adulthood, Beth learns of her uncle’s sexual preference and she accepts him and his boyfriend, Wally (Peter Macdissi).
Their unique relationship in New York takes a turn when Mac dies and Frank and Beth have to return home for the funeral and face the family with the secret of Frank’s sexuality hanging over them both like Damocles’ sword. On the road trip back to South Carolina, Frank is forced to revisit his past and face his fears and regrets. He also has to reconcile his hate for a father he was supposed to love. With Beth and Wally in tow, Frank deals with his demons all the while navigating a world that despises him for who he is.
Uncle Frank was written and directed by Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood), and he captures the essence of the conflict in beautiful and brutal ways. There is some deep truths being exposed here, and while it might not be a 100% autobiographical project for Ball, I began to wonder how much of the story is based on his own life.
Ball nails so many aspects of the family’s views toward homosexuality and Frank’s desire to follow his own advice to Beth, even though he knows he could be arrested or even killed for his love. It’s a heartbreaking dichotomy to watch unfold and I found myself feeling deeply saddened for this fictional character.
Those truths are helped along by a wonderful cast that shines in every way. Paul Bettany is outstanding as Frank, juggling all of the emotions swirling around him, and even adding a splash of alcoholism to further pickle this tortured soul. Sophia Lillis (IT) once again demands that she be watched, as she continues to blossom into a strong actress.
One performance that stood out was Steve Zahn’s Mike Bledsoe, Frank’s younger brother. Mike idolizes his father and his close-minded ideals, and Zahn matches Stephen Root’s deep southern father-figure cadence note-for-note. When Frank’s secret is finally exposed to the family, it was Mike’s reaction I feared the most, and Zahn absolutely turns the film on its head. Zahn has had a long career in Hollywood, and he’s one of those actors that makes films better with his ability to create memorable moments. Uncle Frank is another feather in his acting cap.
In this holiday season when family is on the minds of many, a film like Uncle Frank works to offer a different perspective of family relations. Add a worldwide pandemic and socially-distanced get-togethers, the very concept of family is strained this year, and this film is a refreshing look at the dysfunction that comes with individualism within a bloodline.
And as we all long for the comfort and yes, even anger that comes from families, it’s important to realize that maybe your weird uncle is going through things that you don’t understand, and maybe not even agree with.
I think we all have an Uncle Frank (I had two), and I wish now more than ever they were still here so I could talk to them about their own journeys with acceptance and how they navigated life. At the end of the day, that is my biggest takeaway from this film. I feel I understand them both better now, and I hope they both have peace wherever they are.
Uncle Frank is rated R and debuts on November 25, exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.
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