Written by: Alan Ball
Starring: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith
Leaving one’s hometown for a radically different environment shows different attitudes and ideas being much more prevalent. The deep south and New York City provide a large contrast this way, especially in the 1970s, with the acceptance of those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Anchored by an incredibly strong performance, Uncle Frank shows the struggle of an individual trying to be his complete self around his family even when the potential pain rears its ugly head time after time.
Young Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) has always cared for her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), as he has always been different from everyone else in her family. He cares not for football and instead lounges on the porch and reads things her father would never pick up. He inspires her to move on beyond staying in this small town, which she follows in attending the same college he works at in New York City. She then learns he’s gay and has a partner he has hidden from the rest of the family.
Working as a real two-hander between Frank and Beth, this film adequately examines the faces people put up to hide themselves with the fear of harm being right at the doorstep. Frank displays this struggle as someone who lives his joyful and transparent lifestyle in New York but then needs to disguise his sexuality whenever he goes and visits family in South Carolina. It appears no one in the family knows but he does have an icy relationship with his father, as seen when he gives the patriarch a gift for his birthday. The father essentially chastises him in front of the entire family for giving him a bad gift, which varies differently from the gleeful reactions he gives to everyone else. Something lies under the surface between them that we could guess but receives no confirmation until later in the film. The strength Frank embodies knows no lengths as he finds himself in a situation where many closeted individuals struggle. Coming out to one’s family must be scary and even if he’s not transparent, he still manages to come down to South Carolina for holidays and birthday celebrations. Traveling so far to spend time with people who would hate you if they knew your true identity displays the level of love he has for his family.
Beth serves as the audience’s guide in learning more about Frank as she goes through her own transformation as a character thanks to her uncle. She knows to stand up for herself and not let good ol’ boys speak about her in ways she does not approve of, which definitely became refreshing to watch. The young protagonist learns about Frank’s new identity and takes it in stride with them having to return to South Carolina for a family emergency giving them the opportunity to bond in an unfettered way. The collaboration between these two allow for two distinct perspectives of how to experience this story and it works very well in a succinct manner to capture the moments of elation and the sadness stemming from this issue.
For the bits of melodrama this film utilizes, it remains distinctly human as more gets revealed about Frank and the struggles he’s had to endure with his sexuality in relation to his family. As they travel down to South Carolina by car, different flashbacks get provided to add context to the fears Frank has about coming out and how hard he needs to suppress everything when in front of his supposed loved ones. Paul Bettany absolutely shines with his pain as he exhibits the self-hating aspects of this character and how much gets kept under the surface and then explodes at the appropriate moments in the story. Bettany walks a fine balance with this character and captures what makes him such a kind-hearted person even with all of the vitriol he has endured in his lifetime. A career-best performance thus far for Bettany and along with Sophia Lillis, really drive home the central message of the story.
Emotionally effective and heartwarming in different sequences, Uncle Frank displays what repeated intolerance can do to the psyche of a man even well into adulthood. An underlying fear sits right under the surface during this journey south and the fear of being outed, but plenty of moments with levity still remain in this story as it shows the growth of Beth and the journey of Frank and his partner. It makes for a film that can be shared with family members that speak on accepting loved ones for what they are and throwing away the notion of banishing someone because of a lifestyle they might not agree with.