‘Uncle Frank’ Review: Bettany and Ball Paint a Beautiful Portrait
By Daniel Rester
LGBTQ icon Alan Ball has been working on television projects over the past few years, but now he returns to cinema with Uncle Frank as both writer and director. Ball knows how to dive deep into human emotions, as displayed with his Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty (1999); I’d personally list that as one of the one hundred best screenplays ever written. While Uncle Frank doesn’t reach the heights of American Beauty, it’s another powerful piece from Ball and makes you wish he would return to features more often with characters as interesting as the title character here.
Uncle Frank follows teen Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) as she moves from South Carolina to New York City for college in 1973. Her uncle, Frank (Paul Bettany), lives in the city and teaches there. She soon discovers that Frank is gay and has been in a long-term relationship with a man named Walid (Peter Macdissi). The three of them end up on a road trip down south after Frank’s homophobic father “Daddy Mac” (Stephen Root) suddenly dies. Frank must face his family and his troubled past during the trip.
Ball doesn’t do much new here in terms of story and themes (finding your own way, family members learning to accept a “different” member, etc.), but his characters are freshly written and beautifully realized by a first-rate cast. Frank is a complex man who loves Walid deeply, but who is also afraid to come out to people after his father caught him in a sexual act with a boy as a teen. He also faces past drinking issues. Walid, meanwhile, is a loveable and supportive presence while Beth is curious about the world and discovering her own sexuality.
Bettany deserves Oscar nomination consideration for his layered and moving performance. I never saw Bettany, only Frank. One scene of him breaking down at a graveyard is especially impressive, cutting deep with a raw display of heartbreak. Macdissi flirts with making Walid a caricature at times (too jokey with some of the comic timing), but he’s mostly wonderful and warm. Lillis is great too, though Beth does get sidelined a bit in the second half.
The three main players are surrounded by excellent character actors who fill in the shoes of the Bledsoe family members. Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, and Lois Smith play some of them. These characters, though small supporting players, have a few unexpected turns. Some of the people you expect might be homophobic about Frank’s situation aren’t, and vice versa.
Uncle Frank is handsomely made but never showy. Cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb uses smooth camera work and a warm yellow color palette. Ball stages everything fine, though his main strength stays on the writing front. The “South” is captured well though, from wides of wooded areas by lakes to close-ups of scrumptious food dishes made for a wake. Ball does incorporate a few contrivances in his storytelling (a car breaking down at a convenient time, for instance), but they aren’t too annoying as the characters keep us invested in the journey.
Ball hasn’t lost his touch for examining the quirks and sadness in people as they face turning points in their lives. He gives his three lead actors detailed characters to work with and mostly stays out of their way as they deliver. Bettany, especially, gets on Ball’s wavelength. Uncle Frank may not be up there with Ball’s American Beauty on a whole because of some familiar story turns, but the film’s central character is a terrific accomplishment for both Ball and Bettany.
My Grade: 8.3/10 (letter grade equivalent: A-)
Running Time: 1h 35min