Uncle Frank

In 1969 Creekville, North Carolina, 14 year-old Betty Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, "It," "Gretel & Hansel") can’t understand why her grandfather Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) is so awful to his eldest son (Paul Bettany) who visits rarely from New York City and who Betty finds kind, intelligent and endlessly interesting in addition to being the only adult who will ‘look her in the eye.’  Four years later, Betty, now calling herself Beth, begins attending the college where her uncle is a revered professor of literature and when she crashes a party of his she finally learns what’s so different about “Uncle Frank.”

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director Alan Ball (HBO's 'Six Feet Under,' "Towelhead") reflected on stories he heard and his own experiences growing up to create an intimate coming-of-age tale alongside an adult coming-out tale.  The film abruptly veers in tone around its midpoint as its point of view is switched from Beth’s to Frank’s and it is a bit difficult to adjust to what had been a breezy tale of tolerant innocence informed to tortured guilt and alcoholic demons.  These two wildly different parts of the same film dovetail in an emotionally rewarding way, but that doesn’t help the feeling that Ball should have chosen one avenue or the other.   

What the filmmaker has achieved are two distinctly different senses of place in a time when mores were changing, the pace dependent on geography.  Ball’s also convened a terrific ensemble, Lillis and Bettany forging a uniquely real bond, just as Botany and Ball’s real life partner, producer Peter Macdissi ("Towelhead"), are funny and natural as lovers of ten years.

In 1969, as Mammaw Bledsoe (Margo Martindale), Aunt Butch (Lois Smith) and Betty’s mother Kitty (Judy Greer) rule the kitchen while Daddy Mac and     Betty’s dad Mike (Steve Zahn) clear the living room football game of rambunctious children, Betty finds her dad’s older brother alone on the porch reading.  Uncle Frank tells Betty she can do anything she wants to, including changing her name, and that she should call him before anyone else in the family should she ever find herself in need of birth control or an abortion.  Then Betty witnesses her granddad rudely dismiss his son’s birthday gift, her grandmother stepping in to express appreciation.

The niece and her uncle are reunited four years later on his home turf hosting a dinner for Beth and her parents in his New York City apartment with Charlotte (Britt Rentschler), the woman he presents as his girlfriend who we can clearly tell is his beard.  Much is made of the exotic Arabic food (which we later learn was cooked by another), Mike expressing relief that Charlotte is merely Jewish and not Black.  At NYU, Beth is immediately targeted by Bruce (Colton Ryan), a funny guy from Bismark with a similar appreciation for literature and sexual restraint in the relationship department.  He’s impressed that Frank Bledsoe is her uncle and is the driving factor in crashing Frank’s party.  A delighted Walid (Macdissi) opens the door, but quickly susses out the situation.  By the next morning, everyone, including Bruce, has been outed to the hung over Beth, but their attention shifts quickly with a phone call from Mammaw announcing Daddy Mac has died.  Wally wants to accompany them back home, but Frank nixes the idea.  He and Beth set off on what appears to be a fun road trip, but Beth’s probing questions start churning up the past, Frank’s memories of his first homosexual encounter at 16 with Sam Lassiter (Michael Perez).  The irrepressible Wally shows up along the way, delighting Beth while picking up troublesome signals from his sober alcoholic partner.

Frank’s openness with Beth, who soaks up his exotic lifestyle like a sponge, whose naivety supplies much humor and whose connection with Wally is joyful, is such a lovely, enjoyable part of the film that it is difficult to watch this same man descend into misery and addiction just as the man who’s kept his real self hidden is removed from his life.  There are many painful revelations, both past and present, revealing a tough love side of Wally who’s clearly suffered his lover’s abuse before.   Amazingly, Ball is able to derive some humor from Daddy Mac’s funeral (a pot luck parade montage, the spider no one tells Aunt Buck is in her hair), before plunging us into crisis.  Thankfully there is healing at the other end, Frank and Mike’s sister Neva (Jane McNeill) always supportively in the know, just as Mammaw confides maternal instincts.  Mike’s turnaround is a bit harder to believe in, although Kitty’s is humorously out of touch.

It is surprising how far a receding hairline and full moustache go towards obscuring Bettany’s identity and the actor does his part as well, disappearing completely into Frank’s tortured skin.  Lillis continues to show range as the wide-eyed, open-hearted adventurer.  Macdissi is completely lovable.  There are two coming out films coming out this Thanksgiving and this is the one that rings truer.

Robin's Review: B

"Uncle Frank" will be available on Amazon Prime on 11/25/2020.