Beth (Sophia Lillis) has always looked up to her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). And he couldn’t be more different from the rest of their conservative South Carolina family, or from any of the adults Beth knows in the small town that she’s lived in all her life. And it’s not just because he lives in New York, or actually looks his niece in the eyes when he speaks to her, and listens to what she has to say. Frank wears aftershave. He reads books. He tells Beth that she gets to choose who she is — that she doesn’t just have to be badgered into submission by her hostile grandfather (Stephen Root), who rules over the whole family with an iron fist. It’s 1969, but Frank seems to be the only one who knows it.
As Beth tells us in the perfunctory narration that bookends Alan Ball’s latest film: “Uncle Frank was the kind of person who I wanted to be.” So when Beth enrolls in NYU four years later and learns that her favorite relative is a closeted gay man, the wide-eyed teen is both excited and also a little betrayed. What good is being your own person if you have to spend your entire public life pretending that you’re someone else? At this early point in Uncle Frank, a rare crowd-pleasing dramedy about the pains of self-denial, the movie brims with as much potential as its bright young protagonist. It’s broad, to be sure — that much is clear from the opening titles, as Ball has always looked at American lives by seeing intense caricatures through the lens of their most intimate crises. But it also seems to boast the same confident sense of self-recognition that Beth is eager to find for herself.
Beth’s home life appears fully lived-in (which is helped by the presences of Margo Martindale and Judy Greer). Her bond with Frank is mutually grateful in a way that makes you glad they have each other. It’s endearing, albeit in a comfortably bland sort of way, to watch Frank give Beth a privileged glimpse into his closest; any contrivances are worth it for the delicate cocktail of anxiety and catharsis that sinks across Bettany’s face as Frank gets to introduce a family member to Wally (Peter Macdissi), the generous, funny and massively charismatic love of Frank’s life, and a first-generation Saudi Arabian immigrant who has a double life of his own. A movie about these humane and lovable characters blazing their own trail through the Big Apple might have been a beautiful way for Ball to explore his signature theme — marginalized people struggling to live without fear — in a more grounded register than usual. Yet, that’s not quite what this movie is, as Uncle Frank begins to veer toward mawkishness as soon as Frank gets word that his father has died of a heart attack. A road trip back to Creekville is in order, and a painful family reunion is waiting for Frank when he gets there. So is an open invitation for the recovering alcoholic to start drinking again, and the memory of a formative trauma so painful that he may never have even shared it with Wally (who invites himself on the adventure in a ridiculous way both genuinely amusing and ominously indictive of the story beats to come).
The drive itself is breezy enough (and Khalid Mohtaseb’s cinematography helps make things more engaging), and the chemistry between the characters in that car is able to fuel the movie all the way to South Carolina as they swerve around routine homophobia like potholes in the highway. And yet, there are already signs that Ball’s script might struggle to thread the needle between its natural lightness and the melodrama that savvy audiences can all see coming down the road. Ball understandably seems to enjoy writing for Wally, and in a longer and more patient film he could’ve indulged himself. But Uncle Frank races to churn through a lifetime of unspoken trauma in the span of a TV episode (a medium that Ball has been in for a while now), and it can’t afford to (literally) put Frank in the backseat. Bettany’s nuanced performance unfolds with a gentle beauty even in the film’s most aggrieved moments, but Frank’s return to alcoholism is primarily seen through its effect on Wally while his surviving relatives are reduced to a Greek chorus of blah affectations. Add flashbacks, suicidal thoughts, and Steve Zahn into the mix, and you’re cooking with pretty thin material even before you reach a will-reading scene that has the subtly of a construction site.
While there are a few truly moving detours along the way, Uncle Frank fumbles through its fairy-tale finale so fast that it sours everything that came before, and underserves the difficulty of a gay man coming out to his hyper-conservative family in 1973 — or anyone coming out to any family at any time. Ball’s sincerity is hard to question, his prevailing lack of cynicism proves refreshing to the end, and he’s often just inches away from a more substantive exploration of the way that inherited fear can manipulate people into perpetuating their own marginalization. But if uncle Frank becomes the person who Beth always wanted to be, it’s hard to fathom you’ll get it from this experience. Though Paul Bettany’s performance does its best to rise above the film’s mawkish core, Uncle Frank, with all its earnest intentions, is a film smothered by its thin shallowness.
Uncle Frank screened at the 2020 AFI Fest. Amazon Studios will release it on Amazon Prime Video on November 25