‘UNCLE Frank’ is an original Amazon movie written and directed by Allan Ball who is best known for the hit TV series, “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood”. He also won the Oscar for best original script in “American Beauty”. He first forayed into film directing in the 2007 drama “Towelhead” which is about sexual awakening.
“Uncle Frank” is his second film and is now nominated as best picture in the Emmy Awards. It starts in 1969 in the small town of Creekville in North Carolina and is narrated by Betty Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis of “It”) who’s 14 years old. They’re having a family reunion for the birthday of her grandpa (Stephen Root).
Betty noticed that her grandpa is very mean to his eldest son, Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, best known as Vision in the Avengers series and in the series “WandaVision”), the brother of her mom, Kitty (Jane Greer.) Uncle Frank is a college professor who lives in New York City. Betty finds him very nice and can relate with him easily. She says with fondess: “He’s the only adult I know who looks me straight in the eye.”
Four years later, in 1973, Beth (her chosen nickname), gets accepted in New York University where her Uncle Frank teaches literature. She meets cute guy Bruce (Cotton Ryan), who is awed to know Frank Bledsoe is her uncle and insists they attend a party he is hosting in his apartment. An Arabic guy opens the door for them and is so happy to meet Beth. This is Walid (Peter Macdisi), Uncle Frank’s longtime companion.
The film is a coming-of-age story for Beth and a coming out one for her uncle, who she discovers, while she’s in New York, is gay. Uncle Frank quickly recognizes that Bruce is also gay, wards off his advances and outs him to Beth who gets so drunk she spends the night in Uncle Frank’s apartment.
The next morning, they get a call from Creekville informing them that Beth’s grandpa has died abruptly. They both have to go home for the funeral, with Uncle Frank driving. During their roadtrip, Beth inquires about Uncle Frank’s past and at this juncture, the point of view shifts from Beth to Uncle Frank reminiscing about his past.
It turns out that as a teenager, he had his first sexual encounter with a friend but his father discovered it and this results in a very bitter experience for Frank.
The film’s tone also changes from Beth’s perky tale of an innocent girl warming up to her uncle’s alternative lifestyle to a melodramatic story of of personal guilt and parental rejection that led to painful recriminations and alcoholism. What helps to balance off the melodrama in the film’s second half is Walid showing up during the drive to Creekville.
Frank initially rejected his offer to accompany them but he followed them anyway. He wants to be there for him as he knows some trouble will arise during this visit to Frank’s family, who he has long been dying to meet personally. Walid makes an easy connection with Beth and when Frank suddenly goes missing, they team up to look for him.
Ball succeeds to inject a lot of humor in his storytelling through the irrepressible Walid and even at the dinner after the funeral, it is amusing to watch a montage of various potluck dishes being paraded on camera for the guests to feast on.
The film gets a lot of boost from its terrific ensemble cast, led by Bettany and Lillis who look like have really formed an authentic bond as uncle and niece, as well as Bettany and Macdissi who look so natural as lovers who have endured each other for ten years.
All of them portray their roles well, with Macdissi appearing so lovable as the very sweet and supportive Walid. He is said to be the real life partner of Director Alan Ball.
Bettany should take a bow as we know he’s British but he’s perfectly credible as a closeted academic with a Southern accent. In the end, the trip is very cathartic for Uncle Frank as he is able to purge all the emotional baggage holed up inside of him all these years.