AFI Fest 2020 Review: ‘Uncle Frank’ Bravely Confronts Southern Family Values

Joseph Braverman reviews Uncle Frank, Alan Ball's family drama starring Paul Bettany, which screened at AFI Fest 2020.
User Rating: 7

Coming out is a definite risk, mainly hinging on the reaction of family. Losing the one support system you can always fall back on would terrify anyone. Even if you’ve been at odds with your folks or siblings most of your life, blood knows you. Blood will give you a home; blood will keep your secrets; blood will make sure you never have to suffer alone. That is unless your sexual orientation clashes with fundamental religious beliefs instilled in your upbringing. Though being gay is not a choice, some parents — so devoted to the scriptural word of their faith — will choose God before their child.

For Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany), admitting his homosexuality to his Southern Baptist kin might have to wait until some meet their Maker. Director Alan Ball’s stirring coming-out drama, Uncle Frank, gets candid about certain realities: sometimes nothing will convince a parent to abandon their intolerant position. In that case, free yourself and accept love from those deserving of it. Yes, even in 1973, some people might surprise by how little they care about who you sleep with so long as you can exhale in your truth.

Through the eyes of Frank’s niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), we see the benefits of distancing yourself from home upon finishing high school. College isn’t just an education hub — it forces us to collide with individuals from all creeds, lifestyles, and backgrounds. From this merging comes lifelong bonds that no gospel from the past could shatter. Beth’s time at NYU, where Frank also happens to be a professor, proves to be an eye-opening lesson in urban living. Unlike her rural hometown, people in the city don’t put on airs outside their homes to impress their community. They’re the exact same messy, complicated, unapologetic, uninhibited person walking the street as they are indoors when the blinds are closed.

What’s important is to have someone in your corner when facing possible rejection. Frank’s boyfriend of ten years, Walid (Peter Macdissi), is his rock. He withstood the wrath of Frank’s alcoholism, vowing to remain by his side so long as Frank gives sobriety a fair chance. Walid is an immigrant from Saudi Arabia who pretends he’s married to not upset his devout Muslim mother. Even though his pious and inflexible father passed some time ago, Walid knows the barrier between cultures is too great a hurdle to rock the boat. Having his mother in his life is worth the lie.

Macdissi enters the “Supporting Actor” Oscar race with a performance brimming with tolerance, joy, and self-respect. Walid has a mind of his own, which doesn’t interfere with the love he shares for Frank. He’s also prepared to join the Bledsoe fray whenever Frank gives the all-clear. Meanwhile, Lillis churns out another mature effort, once again proving she’s got talent and human insight well beyond her years.

One of the drawbacks of Paul’s script is Beth taking a backseat in the second half. Once tragedy summons the “free” Bledsoes back to the heartland, Beth abandons her personal worries to watch Frank’s dilemma play out. The narrative refocuses back on its title figure, revealing a man so immersed by his own shame and guilt that drinking becomes the surest way to disappear. Though Bettany sometimes coasts too much on Frank’s emotional withholding, he demonstrates how leading separate lives for the benefit of others can metastasize into internalized homophobia.

Frank’s relationship with his father, affectionately known as Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), is all too familiar to many gay men out there. Disapproval beginning in childhood is a self-esteem killer by adulthood. The more times your bigoted family member reiterates your less-than-masculine behavior, the deeper your bitterness and self-loathing becomes. Eventually, horrifically, you begin to believe what they say is true.

Thankfully, darkness doesn’t completely envelop Frank’s world. Ball casts sunlight on his depressing subject matter, mainly by radiating goodness from Beth and Walid. Not only is Uncle Frank a deferential nod to the closeted men of the period, but it also pays respect to “black sheeps” of the family whose only crime is being misunderstood.

Uncle Frank is distributed by Amazon Studios and hits Prime Video on Nov. 25, 2020

7
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Written by
Joseph Braverman is a 31-year-old film school alum from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. He considers himself one of the biggest Star Wars fans in the galaxy, living by a golden rule that there is no such thing as a “bad” Star Wars movie. Joseph lives in Los Angeles, CA, and enmeshes himself in all things entertainment, though he’ll occasionally take a break from screen consumption to hike in Malibu or embark on new foodie explorations. Vehemently opposed to genre bias, he feels strongly that any good film is worthy of Oscar consideration. Joseph is also a proud member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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