“Uncle Frank” – Amazon Studios
If you are dreaming of a journey home for the holidays, let “Uncle Frank” remind you of the perils of a visit to the ancestral manse. Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “American Beauty”) wrote this heartfelt family melodrama, and the cast is fantastic. As the title character, Paul Bettany is terrific even when the material descends into cliché. I could see where the story was going from a mile away, but I smiled and cried anyway.
Set in the 1970s, this story about a gay man navigating relationships with his disapproving family in their small, conservative hometown does not have many surprises for contemporary sensibilities, and the highs and lows of his experiences are not exactly subtle. Frank’s family, from their Southern accents on down, felt pretty formulaic to me. On the other hand, perhaps they are realistic; this feels like a highly personal project for Ball, especially since he cast his long-time partner, Peter Macdissi, as Frank’s partner, Wally.
The relationship between Frank and Wally exists so beautifully within this film, I wish I could just watch a movie about them together without the contrivances of Frank’s family drama. Their scenes, their chemistry and their dialogue feels so real and true, especially compared to the sometimes predictable histrionics of the family confrontations. Wally is such a warm character; I completely fell in love with him. Macdissi played Olivier, the overbearing art teacher on “Six Feet Under,” and this character could not have been further from that one. Having Frank’s partner be from the Middle East added another layer of interest and contrast to their relationship. Seriously, Alan Ball, please make the TV show “Frank and Wally!” so I can watch it.
One of my favorite young actresses, Sophia Lillis — who played Nancy in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” which I unabashedly loved, and Young Beverly in “It,” which more people may have actually seen — plays Frank’s niece, Beth. She grew close to him after trailing him to New York City to attend New York University following a life-changing conversation they had while she was in high school. Beth is the narrator and the eyes of the film. When she drinks her first martini at a sophisticated party at their Greenwich Village apartment, it is perfectly delightful. I really would have been OK if the three of them had stayed in NYC for the film’s run time, but I understand Ball needed Frank to come out to his family. In my mind, they’re still hanging out with Barbara Stanwyck, their pet lizard.
But, the plot calls Uncle Frank and Beth home to Nowheresville, Deep South, USA, when the hateful patriarch finally exits earth. Once there, the intellectual and emotional hangout vibe shifts to fateful confrontations and painful flashback scenes. Nevertheless, the audience’s goodwill engendered by Frank, Wally and Beth means we will follow them anywhere, even through the most melodramatic contrivances.
On the other hand, I read an interview with Ball about this film, and one of my favorite lines, spoken by Steve Zahn as Frank’s brother, was apparently taken directly from real life. So maybe “Uncle Frank” isn’t so over-the-top dramatic after all. There was a time when relatives told gay men they were going to hell, and I’m just lucky enough to find it hard to believe. If this sounds more believable to you, you should probably stay home for the holidays and adopt the starring trio of “Uncle Frank” instead.
“Uncle Frank” is currently available to stream on Amazon.
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