Between American Beauty and Towelhead, Uncle Frank is probably the closest Alan Ball has come to writing a feel-good movie. That’s not to say that the film is a lighthearted affair from start to finish. The narrative touches upon difficult concepts, such as homophobia, alcoholism, and suicide. While the journey has its hardships, the final destination carries a warm sentiment that makes the experience rewarding. Along the way, the audience is treated to the witty dialogue and colorful characters they’ve come to associate with Ball’s work.
Since her breakout role in It, Sophia Lillis has drawn parallels to a young Jodie Foster. She continues to earn comparison as she approaches adulthood. She shines in Uncle Frank as Beth Bledsoe, a well-read girl from South Carolina. Beth doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family, which includes Steve Zahn as her redneck father and Judy Greer as her well-meaning yet old-fashioned mother. The only one who understands Beth is her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a professor who lives in Manhattan. Frank motivates Beth to seek higher education upon graduating high school, which she takes to heart.
Ten minutes in, I was worried that Uncle Frank would be another routine film about an intelligent girl and the family that just doesn’t get her. Fortunately, this isn’t The Glass Castle. While her family doesn’t exactly value education, they’re generally supportive of Beth’s decision to attend college in the big city. There’s only one family member who’s irredeemable and we don’t have to spend too much time with him. The character in question is Beth’s grandfather (Stephen Root), who’s always been cruel to Frank for reasons that initially aren’t clear. The pieces fall into place after Beth learns that Frank is a closet gay man and with this being 1973, people are still far from accepting.
When his father dies, Frank is reluctant about driving back south to attend the funeral. He’s encouraged to go, however, with support from Beth and his boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi). Frank and Beth thus hit the road with Wally following close behind. The dynamic between these three is largely what carries the picture with Bettany’s Frank being the standout. Bettany initially rose to mainstream attention with films like A Beautiful Mind, although he’s primarily known for playing Vision in the MCU these days. He gives his best performance here as a man who’s afraid to confront his father, even in death.
From Frank Fitts to David Fisher of Six Feet Under, Ball knows how to write complex gay characters. Ball, himself a gay man, goes to some especially dark places here. There’s a particularly powerful flashback that gets to the root of Frank’s self-loathing and bad blood with his father. Watching Frank wrestle with himself is unnerving, heartbreaking, and all-too-real. As mentioned at the being of this review, though, Uncle Frank does earn its feel-good status with moments of humor and affection. The film is a reminder that no family is perfect, but as long as everybody can accept one another, nothing else matters.