Uncle Frank is an old-school homophobia melodrama elevated by its lead

Paul Bettany’s restrained portrayal sells this 1970s-set morality play by Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under).

Alan Ball’s chief thematic concern has always been the thorny realities of the idea of the American nuclear family. Since breaking out of the sitcom scene with American Beauty (which now feels extremely of its time for various reasons, some of which have to do with the inevitable passage of time and some that… do not), Ball has explored the various ways in which the American dream and the accepted notions of the proper family come into contradiction with everything else in the world. Ball has only made one film since American Beauty, a long-forgotten indie called Towelhead which came and went without much fuss in the heyday of a Sundance film festival where every movie seemed to be in direct competition with every other movie. 

Based entirely on this information, one could surmise that Ball’s biggest hurdle is that his work tends to be very much of the moment, and thus doesn’t have much staying power. (Even Six Feet Under, which is one of the cornerstones of this new Golden Age of TV, seems sort of quaint and tacky these days.) His latest film, Uncle Frank, bridges that gap (intentionally or not) by being set in the ’70s; as far as I can tell, it’s the first time that Ball has explicitly looked at the past in the rearview mirror. Though extremely conventional in most ways, Uncle Frank allows Ball to explore the things that he holds dear (homosexuality, the ties that bind families, how to compromise our desires and ideals with what’s expected of us) without having to make portentous proclamations about The Times We Live In.

Beth (Sophia Lillis) grows up in North Carolina in a typical Southern family, the daughter of down-home middle-class parents (Steve Zahn and Judy Greer) who spend most of their social time with her grandparents, old-fashioned patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) and the Margo Martindale-esque Mammaw (played by Margo Martindale, of course). Beth doesn’t feel much kinship with her family or the South, preferring the life of glitz and glamour she perceives is lived by her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a literature professor who lives in New York.

It’s only years later, when she moves to New York for school, that Beth realizes her uncle — who’s mostly tolerated but not exactly appreciated by the rest of her family — lives his life as an out gay man and has been living with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) for years. When Daddy Mac passes away, Beth and Frank go on an impromptu road trip which Frank explicitly forbids Wally from coming on, lest his presence officially confirm what pretty much all of his family already knows yet refuses to acknowledge… which, of course, immediately prompts Wally to rent a car and follow anyway.

For people from a certain socioeconomic background, Uncle Frank the film and character will be immediately familiar. I have an Uncle Frank (or, rather, a great-uncle Frank), and I’m sure many of you do, too. Someone reading right now might be their family’s Uncle Frank — not exactly ostracized outright for their sexuality and life choices (it seems that, in at least one case, Frank’s family is just as uncomfortable with the fact he lives in New York and not bucolic North Carolina), but certainly kept at arm’s length. Frank has other reasons to live in fear and trauma of his hometown, we soon find out, but the unspoken tension has remained unspoken for decades to the point where it becomes unclear whether the intolerance or the fear of that same intolerance is stronger. Frank exists in a constant struggle between who he knows he is, who he wants to be, how he’s perceived and how he wants to be perceived. 

It’s admittedly sort of an old-fashioned approach to these particular questions (questions that, it must be said, I am only tangentially familiar with as a cishet man) but Uncle Frank is a resolutely old-fashioned film even beyond its period setting. It draws fairly simplistic relationships between characters and gives them fairly straightforward backstories to the point where it sometimes feels like a film meant to introduce the concept of homosexuality to children or particularly sheltered adults in the 1970s. As the film is told from Beth’s innocent perspective, any mildly perceptive viewer is likely to pick up on obvious things way before she does, which rids the film of a certain subtlety. In spite of its great cast and studied visual look, Uncle Frank sometimes teeters on the brink of the afterschool special.

What mostly prevents the movie from fully going down the condescending, hand-holdy Green Book-adjacent path is Bettany’s performance as Frank. A relatively meek and outwardly sophisticated if uncomplicated man, the character of Frank is admittedly a bit of a left-field choice to tell this particular story. In fact, one of the smartest decisions Ball makes in telling this story is by centering it on a man who is, in many aspects, unremarkable. Bettany is so restrained and so inward in his performance that it does a lot to temper Ball’s more melodramatic instincts. It’s an extremely unshowy performance in all respects; even when things like Frank falling off the wagon happen, it’s handled in a realistic and grounded manner by Bettany.

Had Uncle Frank been made 20 years ago, it would almost certainly be destined to be played ad nauseam in high school morals classes, a perfectly down-the-middle way to teach kids about homophobia in a way that will not get psychotic conservative parents to picket the school and rip their shirts off on live TV. Like Green Book, it’s so far removed from being a radical tract that I don’t think it’ll do much convincing — but I could be massively wrong about that, too. It’s possible that someone’s life is about to change radically because of Uncle Frank, but it’s also possible that even its best intentions can only get it so far. ■

Uncle Frank is on Amazon Prime Video as of Wednesday, Nov. 25. Watch the trailer below:

Paul Bettany stars in Uncle Frank

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