Amazon Studios newest release UNCLE FRANK (2020) from writer/director Alan Ball of the fantastic SIX FEET UNDER (2001-2005) fame, gives us a film about despair, love, family and learning to live to be yourself. This beautifully done film deals with many important subjects and themes. It is a film about acceptance and understanding people no matter their background or whom they choose to love.
UNCLE FRANK tells the story of a rural South Carolina girl Beth (Sophia Lillis), a lovely but naïve young girl who is always happy when her uncle Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany) comes for family reunions, which is very rare. She observers how her grandfather goes out of his way to ignore his eldest son while her admiration grows for Uncle Frank, whom she sees as this dashing figure who lives and teaches Literature at New York University (NYU) and lives a life she can only dream of. When it comes time for Beth to go to college, she receives a scholarship to attend NYU and happily realizes she will now get to spend a considerable amount of time with her Uncle Frank.
While there Beth learns of not only Uncle Frank’s worldly ways, but learns a lesson about life herself. See her uncle is living in a very discreet ‘relationship’ of 10 years with Walid ‘Wally’ (Peter Macdissy), a lovely bearded, charismatic guy from Saudi Arabia who seems to always be happy and ready for fun. It is on the occasion of the death of Frank’s father ‘Daddy Mac‘ (Stephen Root) that Beth and Uncle Frank embark on a road trip back to South Carolina. Along the way, Beth is exposed to bigotry and homophobia. Once she and Uncle Frank are back in small-town, rural Creekville, South Carolina, the past reveals itself in flashbacks of Frank’s childhood, including how he discovered he was gay and how he dealt with it and how it leads him to deal with it within his small town family circle. The film doesn’t shy away from showcasing small-town 1970’s homophobia and why Frank is so hesitant to come out to his family.
On the acting front, Paul Bettany probably gives the best performance of his life here. It’s truly memorable and very emotional as the film focuses on how living this secret life has affected him and how even though he is intelligent it doesn’t change the fact that he is scared about living his life in the open and coming out to his family. The adorable Sophia Lillis shines brightly here and the supporting cast of Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Jane McNeill and Judy Greer are welcome accompaniments to the story as well.
The bottom line is UNCLE FRANK is a beautifully shot, thoughtful take on the challenges of traditional 70’s thinking and the challenges of a gay life within a family. But it is also a touch guilty of falling for some forced emotional story elements, one in particular that felt wasted and didn’t quite work and felt a little bit forced and like it had an agenda. Still it’s a must see!