Film Review – Uncle Frank
Coming of age and life-changing films are a dime a dozen, but in this 2020 slump, sometimes seeing positive films can improve your mood and make you a bit happier. Uncle Frank is not all kindness and positivity, but in a roundabout way creates a validity to living your true self.
Uncle Frank takes place in the 1970s, a time when homosexuality was still considered a sin and something that people should be outcast from society for being gay. Being gay and living in the rural South with a “good Christian family” creates even more hardship for not being straight, marrying, and having a family. This environment is what Frank (Paul Bettany) escaped from, but it is how the audience is introduced to Frank and his family, celebrating his father’s birthday, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). The narrator of the story is Betty or Beth (Sophia Lillis), Frank’s niece. The birthday takes place four years before the bulk of the story, but it introduces the audience to the characters that influenced Frank (and Beth) and propelled them toward a different future than the one embraced by the rest of the family.
Frank is Beth’s favorite uncle; he seems mysterious, quiet, reserved, and not present much in her life. This quality leads her to be intrigued enough by him that she takes him up on his advice, both on schooling and her sex life. When we meet Beth and Frank again, it is four years later, and Beth is a freshman at NYU where Frank teaches as a professor. Beth escaped her tiny Southern town and is now adjusting to life in the big city and thankful to have an uncle nearby.
A work party leads to Frank’s eventual “outing” to his niece and the rapid introduction to his partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi). Her uncle’s mysteriousness only increases for Beth, and the untimely death of her grandpa, Frank’s father, leads to extended bonding time in a road trip back to the South with a trip-crashing stunt by Wally.
The meat of the story is Frank dealing with his past and hiding his sexuality from his family. Beth and Wally are standing by as a kind of support system for Frank as he nears the destination of home. Stops along the way reinforce the attitudes towards homosexuality and the constant struggle to keep it a secret. There is trauma in Frank’s past, relating to his sexuality, that continues to haunt him and affect his relationship with his now-deceased father. One coping mechanism is alcohol, which Wally tries to keep away from him.
The cinematography and direction of the film reinforce Frank’s journey. The road trip feels freeing, with wide shots and overhead camerawork. These shots are juxtaposed with closeups when Frank is back at home, doubled with a feeling of a small farmhouse as the family gathers inside. The outside images allow Frank to breathe. As Frank recalls his first love, again, these shots are from overhead and outside, as a young Frank (Cole Doman) runs with wild abandon through a forest to a lake.
While Uncle Frank deals with a subject matter in the 1970s, director and screenwriter Alan Ball creates levity by injecting humor into the story, mostly through Wally’s character. Wally portrays his relationship with Frank and the attitudes towards homosexuality with some frivolity mixed with mentioning the deathly consequences of this way of life in his native Saudi Arabia. Coming from New York City, the couple is freer to live their lives out in the open than if they lived in Frank’s hometown.
The climax of Uncle Frank is devastating and cruel, but its resolution is almost too sweet, too perfect. It was almost like Ball wanted to wrap the ending in a big, red bow and make it a feel-good film. And yeah, it did make me tear up and get the warm fuzzies. Aside from the too-perfect ending, the film is enjoyable, fluctuating between depressing and humorous, with enough on the lighter side to not make it too much of a downer for the winter of 2020.