‘Uncle Frank’ Paints a Portrait of Family Life Recognizable to Many Gay Men
Alan Ball’s new film Uncle Frank exposes deep-seated Southern homophobia in much the same way 2018’s Academy Award-winning Green Book approached racism. It couches the painful realities of the title character’s existence in 1973 in a mostly funny, entertaining, and ultimately feel-good package. Some might find it reductive and insignificant. Yet in its small-scale observations of one Southern family — and centered around Paul Bettany’s immersive performance of a middle-aged gay man struggling against a father’s unequivocal rejection — the film is harsher, and warmer, than at first might be apparent.
Frank Bledsoe (Bettany) is everybody’s favorite gay uncle; except it’s 1973 in the South, and though folks might suspect, nobody talks about it. Frank’s 18-year-old niece, Beth (a wide-eyed Sophia Lillis), wonders why her erudite and funny uncle comes home from New York only for holidays or birthdays (if then), and why there is such open coldness between him and the family patriarch, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). Frank adores his niece — the feeling is mutual — and on one of his rare excursions to see his family, he gently guides her to take control of her own future, to not fall victim to the expectations imposed on her gender in a time when feminism, though prevalent, was more often than not a derisive talking point in the suburbs.
Beth narrates the film. She’s observational though not dispassionate, and her independent spirit is just coming into fruition as she sets off for college in New York City, though the emotional journey we’re taken on has little to do with her except as a witness to the casual devastation caused by ingrained homophobia (both Frank’s and Daddy Mac’s). Ball is no stranger to this, though the film Uncle Frank is not a veiled portrait of his own coming out.
“I didn’t personally have that kind of rejection,” Ball has said, “because I didn’t come out of the closet until I was in my 30s and I had already moved away from home and forged an adult life for myself. But I was very aware when I was younger of that kind of thinking, and that it’s just the worst thing that can happen to somebody. The worst thing you can be told, that it’s a crime against nature and God, and God hates you, and it’s a sickness and you’ll go to hell. I have some fairly religious people in my family. It was something that you just sort of absorb.”
Frank’s rejection is inferred; the catalyst for it occurred in his teens, and we’re long into the movie before the specific details emerge in a series of flashbacks as Frank and Beth road trip back to South Carolina after Daddy Mac dies. Beth has recently learned of her uncle’s “secret,” and has met his partner Walid (Peter Macdissi in his best screen role to date) who urges them to drive together and get to know each other better. (Walid follows them from a distance and is there to save the day when they experience car trouble.)
But Frank traffics in a type of duality long known to gay men of a certain age — how to move unknown through the straight world while only fully themselves in their private one — and Beth struggles to get him to open up. His demons have manifested in a drinking problem that nearly ended his relationship with Walid, and the closer they get to the funeral, the more the old demons come into play. Bettany’s performance — both messy and precise — is an homage to his own family history.
“My brother died when I was 8 years old [and it] destroyed my family,” the actor has said. “Fast forward 63 years old, my dad came out to me as a relief for everybody. He then had a 15-year marriage with a man — said man died. My father, getting towards the end of his life and feeling his mortality and desperate to get into heaven to see my brother, went back in the closet and died with shame and sadness, and for me that was a real tragedy. I was trying to give a performance for my father who never quite got to the place that Uncle Frank manages to [get to] through the guidance of his young niece.”
Both Macdissi and Root play characters that are often one note: Macdissi as the warm-hearted, long-suffering partner of an emotionally scarred, distant lover, and Root as the rigid, myopic Southerner to whom homosexuality is an unforgivable sin. Yet Walid — “Wally” as they call him — who is as open as Frank is sheltered, suffers from his own fraught relationship to his Iranian family. And Daddy Mac, when he denounces his son after discovering him in bed with a high school classmate, is not simply a villain for modern audiences. Don’t misunderstand me — his actions are horrific — but Root, in close-up while delivering the most upsetting words in the film, glimpses the heartbreak beneath the fervid righteousness. He’s a superlative character actor who has stolen scenes in films as different as Get Out and Office Space, and he’s never been better.
Neither has Ball. The comfort and the ugliness of family life has been his wheelhouse since he rose to prominence with his award-winning screenplay for American Beauty and his oversight of HBO’s Six Feet Under (as director-writer-producer). His new film Uncle Frank isn’t a game-changer like American Beauty or as epic as Six Feet Under (that ending is still the best thing to happen to episodic TV), but it’s a skillfully calibrated celebration of family and individual resilience that has the weight of personal experience behind it.