Film

Review: Alan Ball Explores 1970s Family Dynamics in Layered, Emotional Uncle Frank

One of two films released this week about coming out to one’s family (the other being Hulu’s holiday rom-com Happiest Season), Uncle Frank manages a weight and depth missing from its counterpart, even if its perspective isn’t always the one we’d like it to be. Written and directed by the prolific (and usually very darkly comic) Alan Ball (American Beauty, “Six Feet Under”), the film stars Sophia Lillis (It) as Beth Bledsoe, a college freshman who finds herself on a road trip from Manhattan to South Carolina with her favorite uncle, Frank (Paul Bettany) for her grandfather’s funeral. As the title indicates, the film is from Beth’s perspective as an impressionable young woman coming of age in the early 1970s and learning about love in all its forms, relationships and the work that goes into them, and what it means to be able to choose one’s family.

Uncle Frank

Image Credit: Brownie Harris. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The film begins four years before Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) passes away, when Uncle Frank is home in Creekville for his father’s birthday celebration. In voiceover, Betty (as she’s known then before choosing to go by the more refined “Beth”) tells us just how much she adores Frank, his very presence a breath of fresh air in their small, isolated town. He’s a professor in New York, we learn. He’s charming and funny and seems to believe in Betty in ways no one else has ever even pretended to. Though she can’t quite put her finger on why, even Beth can see that Daddy Mac treats Frank differently, aggressively mean to him for seemingly no reason. In the film’s opening sequence at the patriarch’s birthday party, Ball does makes exceptional work of establishing a family dynamic in a matter of moments. With a stacked cast (Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith) filling out the extended family, their interactions are as individualized as they are ingrained, each playing their part in a fiefdom lorded over by Daddy Mac.

Before Beth heads off to NYU, where Frank is a professor, she and her parents Mike (Zahn) and Kitty (Greer) visit Frank’s place for a nice family dinner; they even meet Frank’s girlfriend and engage in some entertaining country mouse/city mouse repartee. Frank and Mike couldn’t be more different, but they’re brothers, and that’s enough to foster a comfortable familiarity, even as their lives have diverged. Beth, in her youth, is oblivious to any unspoken understandings, and thinks nothing of inviting herself over to Frank’s place for one of his parties once the semester has started. It’s there she’s finally clued into what Daddy Mac hated so much about Frank: his homosexuality. Beth meets Frank’s longtime partner Walid (Peter Macdissi), and soon she’s as fond of Wally as she is of Frank. She’s at their apartment when Frank receives the call that Daddy Mac has suddenly died, calling them both home for the funeral.

Narratively, Ball takes a balanced approach to the varied sections of the film, allowing sufficient time in each without allowing any to overshadow the others. That is, for a film with a road trip at its center, it doesn’t become a road movie. For a film with a funeral as its destination, it’s never just about death and dying. Instead, Ball is interested in how Beth, an 18-year-old cishet woman (she does confirm to Frank that she’s never thought about girls “that way”) in the early 1970s receives the avalanche of new information coming her way, from the world around her but also from within her own family, learning more than she ever realized possible about the people she thought she knew the best. Lillis is appropriately wide-eyed through it all, growing confident enough by the film’s dramatic climax to be able to offer back to her elders some of the wisdom they’d previously imparted on her. If there’s anything curious about Ball’s approach, it’s that he chooses not to center Frank in the story, arguably the character with the most harrowing journey and certainly a lifestory that would’ve made for a completely different film. Perspectives get a bit muddled when we glimpse flashbacks of Frank’s adolescence and his budding sexuality; if this is Beth’s story, how would she be privy to memories like that? But it’s a small quibble in a film that smartly navigates a unique moment both in culture and for the Bledsoe family.

Above all, Bettany is striking as a man who’s spent his life trying to release himself from his father’s crippling disapproval. Essentially able to manage it when he’s away in the city, living his life far from his conservative family and hometown, Frank is charismatic and open; his relationship with Wally is secure, and he’s built an existence for himself that truly reflects who he is. When he returns home for the funeral, it all comes crumbling down with one final, cruel gesture from Daddy Mac. Bettany finds subtle, remarkable ways to express the impact of this trauma—a trembling hand the only outward sign that he’s falling apart inside—while his affable veneer starts to show cracks—a drinking problem threatens to derail his hard-earned sobriety. With his father’s passing, Frank finds himself in a similar situation as his young niece, a new world open to him if he’s willing to be brave enough to stand in it. Uncle Frank loses some of the goodwill it’s earned with a slightly over-simplified denouement, but Ball’s delivered an engaging enough family dynamic until that point; if anything, these moments are meant to remind us what a fierce hold Daddy Mac had on the whole family, not just Frank.

Uncle Frank is set in a very particular, very deliberate moment. In the early 1970s, an entire generation was growing out of the “summer of love” 1960s while the AIDS pandemic had yet to devastate the nation’s gay community. Women’s lib was in full force (Frank even offers at one point to pose as Beth’s dad to help her get birth control), and Beth was just as likely to meet someone, get married and stay home with the kids as she was to earn her degree and build a career of her own (or both!). As a snapshot of this unique moment, Ball’s film succeeds in capturing the inner-workings of an extended family in the midst of big changes and the world into which someone like Beth, all potential and optimism, would be emerging. Though not nearly as macabre as some of his other work, Uncle Frank is nevertheless a fittingly Ball-esque exploration of relationships in every form—familial, romantic, even our relationships with ourselves—with plenty to say about them all.

Uncle Frank is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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