Living with the harsh reality that the United States Supreme Court is the most conservative since the 1930’s, we are faced with the possibility of reversal of protections – from healthcare to environmental. In that regard, Alan Ball’s compelling feature length directorial debut, Uncle Frank, couldn’t be timelier, as it’s a reminder of the harsh laws that governed alternative lifestyles and the severe consequences of getting caught. Known primarily as the writer of American Beauty and creator of the True Blood franchise series, Ball’s film deals with a very serious subject, but still retains plenty of amusing moments.
Set in 1973, Uncle Frank is a family drama told through the eyes of young Beth Bledsoe, wonderfully played by Sophia Lillis. She lives in Creekville, South Carolina where her grandfather Daddy Mac, played by Stephen Root, is the strict patriarch at its head. Beth has been accepted by New York University, where her Uncle Frank, beautifully characterized by Paul Bettany, is a highly respected professor of literature and has avoided family visits for decades. From his remarks, it is clear that her grandfather does not like his son. Beth doesn’t understand this as she finds her uncle to be the most interesting member of the family. He encourages her to reach her goals and in an intimate conversation, promises that he will always be there for her. What she is about to find out is that her uncle is gay and created an acceptable heterosexual lifestyle story for the family.
At college, Beth becomes friends with Bruce, a duplicitous young man played by Colton Ryan who, although virgin Beth would like to have sex with him, he declines. She surprises Frank by showing up at his office with Bruce who she introduces as her boyfriend. Frank is happy to see her, but is swamped with work so the visit is short. Beth finds out that her uncle is having a party and decides to show up with Bruce. Frank’s lover Wally (Walid,) tenderly played by Peter Macdissi, opens the door and introduces himself as her uncle’s roommate. Bruce finds the professor sitting on the fire escape smoking and offers a sex act. Irritated, Frank tells him to get lost and warns Beth about whom Bruce really is. It is during this visit that Frank reveals his true identity to his niece.
Shortly after the party, Frank’s father dies but he is reluctant to go to the funeral. He knows his father has despised him since he was a teenager when he caught him in bed with a boy named Sam, played by Michael Perez. Wally encourages his partner to attend the funeral and to use that time to “come out of the closet.” Wally wants to go with him but Frank says that’s a bad idea.
In the meantime, Beth’s parents Kitty (Judy Greer) and Mike (Steve Zahn) won’t allow her to fly home, so it becomes a fun road trip between uncle and niece. She is curious and wants to know if he ever kissed a girl and when he knew he was gay. It became clear to him when he was 16. In a flashback, he and Sam are swimming in a lake and have their first kiss. Despite telling Wally that he cannot attend the funeral, he follows them down and they run into each other at a gas station. Frank is upset and asks him why he didn’t respect his wishes, to which he replied, “I brought you a razor and a tie.” Frank’s car breaks down so the three of them wind up in Wally’s convertible. It’s a long drive from Manhattan to Creekville so they decide to overnight in a motel. Frank tells his partner that they cannot share a room. “We could go to prison if we’re caught.” In one amusing scene, the desk clerk at the motel demands to know the relationship between them and after answering to her satisfaction, she insists the young girl must have her own room, which leaves the two guys to share a room. But being closeted isn’t the only challenge Frank faces, as it appears he is also a recovering alcoholic. Faced with the prospects of being with his family, he starts drinking again, which is of grave concern to Wally who says, “I won’t go through it again.” After the funeral, there are flashbacks and one where Frank’s father catches him in bed with Sam and tells him, “You can’t see that boy again. If you do, I’ll kill both of you.” The rest of the film focuses on Frank’s grappling with his demons and an event that further cements his father’s contempt for him.
Director Ball’s brilliant script, nicely captured on camera by Khalid Mohtaseb, underscored by Nathan Barr’s music, has skillfully revealed the horrors of being gay in that era without beating you over the head. It’s deft story telling, and Bettany’s exquisite characterization of Frank is Oscar-worthy as is Sophia Lillis’ portrayal of Beth and Peter Macdissi’s Wally. The rest of the excellent cast includes, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, and Cole Doman.
When: November 26, 2020
Running Time: 95 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R