Uncle Frank (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Alan Ball makes a curious decision to tell this story through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old girl even though the heart of the picture is a gay man who yearns acceptance from his southern, religious, and deeply conservative family. But it is the correct choice because early on in the picture, the man, Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), is able to give the then fourteen-year-old, Beth (Sophia Lillis), something that his own immediate family couldn’t or wouldn’t give: wings—the encouragement necessary to become whatever it is she wants to become or be. Beth is who Frank might have become had his father (Stephen Root) loved him without condition.
Although “Uncle Frank” does not push the LGBTQIA+ sub-genre in new directions, it is able to hit enough fresh notes to be amusing, dramatic, and heartfelt. In particular, I enjoyed Lillis’ clear-eyed performance as a young woman who is intelligent, strong, enthusiastic, always open to new experiences and lifestyles. But it doesn’t mean she isn’t naive; she is—Beth, after all, hails from a sheltered bubble in South Carolina. It is 1973: the majority of the town is white, right-leaning, and the word of God is considered law. Homosexuals can be arrested for being. People of color are met with certain glances and whispers. Beth, an avid reader just like Uncle Frank the associate professor, belongs in New York City. She is a freshman in NYU.
When the picture is focused on showing how Beth perceives the world around her, its puissance is undeniable. She is a fast-learner. Those eyes are alert, hungry. A strange detail or a secret is an opportunity to widen her world view. Especially amusing is when she comes for a surprise visit to Uncle Frank’s while he and his live-in partner named Wally (Peter Macdissi), who is an Arab, host a party. We can almost feel Beth’s mind exploding due to the diversity of the guests (their skin color, creed, and sexuality), the alcohol, the drugs, the joy of being unshackled from the usual rules of niceties of middle-of-nowhere, SC.
But the story must focus on Uncle Frank eventually. Although still interesting, it is less strong by comparison. I felt for Frank constantly chasing for his father’s approval. He may be a man in his 40s who has found his stride in The Big Apple but when he is back to his childhood home, he feels as small and powerless as he did when he was a boy. Not only does Daddy Mac treat Frank as the black sheep of the family, Frank is the black sheep carrying the plague. The father’s hatred for his son’s homosexuality inspires rage and deep sadness.
However, in the latter half, we also get flashbacks of Frank’s first love as a teenager and the tragedy that occurred. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been the wiser choice to allow the characters, namely Frank and his niece, to talk to each other about what exactly happened—allow us as listeners to paint images in our minds just as one would when reading a novel. The dialogue and chemistry among the performers, after all, are strong. Jumping from the present to the past then back again distracts more than illuminates on occasion. The approach is too busy in a movie like this, one that thrives in relaxed pacing and overall presentation.
A case can be made that the past is so traumatic for Frank that to excavate the past by means of flashbacks might have been inappropriate. These flashbacks, however, are innocent and beautiful, particularly sequences shot in and around the lake. It is like an old painting: the yellow-dominant color scheme is so warm, it inspires a smile on the viewer’s face. I thought about my childhood when I used to hunt for bugs amongst the tall grass, underneath logs and rocks.