Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 24th, 2020
Uncle Frank (Alan Ball, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
The year is (initially) 1969, and the halcyon days of a South Carolina summer drone lazily on, 14-year-old Betty not all that happy in her regressive home, but loving the attention from her Uncle Frank. He’s a college professor in New York City and the eldest son of Daddy Mac, who seems to loathe Frank, which has not prevented him from returning for the patriarch’s birthday. Frank takes especial interest in bright, young Betty, urging her to get good grades and be true to herself, so that one day she, too, can leave. He has his reasons, as we will soon learn.
In the meantime, his supportive presence gives Betty the courage to, 4 years later, follow him up to New York University and change her name to Beth. It’s once she enters college that the drama truly begins. Such is the setup of Uncle Frank, the latest work from writer/director Alan Ball (showrunner of HBO’s magnificent Six Feet Under series). Though some of its plot devices are obvious, undercutting their power, the film still has enough genuine emotion and pathos to resonate long after it ends.
Sophia Lillis (It) plays Betty, and any opportunity to watch this rising star of an actress work her performance magic is one worth taking. She does much with but a smile or a shrug, her narrow shoulders and frame conveying wisdom well beyond her youth. Paired with an excellent Paul Bettany (Journey’s End), she holds her own and then some; each makes an excellent partner the one for the other. Their intensity, however, needs a foil.
Enter gentle, jovial Peter Macdissi (Burning Palms) as Walid (or “Wally”), Frank’s long-time lover, hidden from family back home. A chance arrival at a faculty party to which she is decidedly not invited allows Beth to discover Frank’s buried secret. What by 1973 is quasi-acceptable in the Big Apple remains taboo in many other places, including South Carolina. Which is why, when word comes up that Daddy Mac has died, Frank tells Wally to stay behind when he goes to the funeral. If people always did what they are told, however, both life and movies would be far less interesting.
And so Uncle Frank next becomes a road-trip story, then a homecoming, and then a reckoning. Though it’s easy to guess some of the dramatic twists of Ball’s screenplay, given its mix of well-worn mix Southern Gothic and coming-out tales, others prove more surprising, many courtesy of Macdissi’s Wally. He’s such a sweet bear of a man, his insistent, loving presence both cloying and delightful, that he shifts the narrative in just the right direction every time it approaches cliché. He’s also just a hoot. Other members of the ensemble do their part, from Judy Greer (Buffaloed) to Margo Martindale (Blow the Man Down) to Stephen Root (Seberg) to Steve Zahn (Cowboys), but it’s the three characters with whom we spend the most time who keep us hooked.
Below the surface bonhomie of the ride down south lurks Frank’s painful memories of a past he thought long forgotten. Growing up gay in his conservative surroundings of the 1930s and 1940s was not just hard, but potentially lethal, and while some things may have changed, they haven’t changed enough. And though some of the big set pieces feel exactly like what they are, designed to milk the melodrama as much as possible, the painful truth of what lies beneath their unfortunate formalism never rings false. Uncle Frank triumphs, in the end, through force of will and generosity of spirit.