Alan Ball is one of those writers, you know his name, but you might not know where from or how. He’s made some of the most wonderful television over the last 20 years by crafting intricate relatable characters, including those in critic’s darling Six Feet Under and the supernatural obsession True Blood. He’s also the Oscar winning writer of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, so when he writes a new film with ties to his own life, you know you’re going to be nothing short of intrigued.
Ball’s latest film, Uncle Frank (which he is also directing) is an idea blossomed from his own coming out story to his mother. Ball, in an interview with The People’s Movies, says he was living in New York at the time, took a trip to North Carolina to visit his mother, and after telling her was told that his father may have had similar inclinations. Ball’s father had already passed when his mother revealed this to him, but the story of a particular boy his father had been close with, followed by the boy’s untimely death, created a “what if” moment for Ball as he attempted to reconcile his own path with that of his late father’s.
Uncle Frank is an amalgamation of Ball’s own coming out story with that “what if” moment, as it follows Frank Bledsoe’s (Paul Bettany) journey through the eyes of his outsider niece, Betty (Sophia Lillis). Betty admires her Uncle Frank, who fails to conform to the stereotypes of the 1970s men she watches around her. She watches as her father, Mike (Steve Zahn), and grandfather, Mac (Stephen Root), talk loud and act tough around a football game as Frank reads quietly on the porch before giving her the best advice of her young life: be who you want to be, not who they expect you to be.
Right from the start of the film, I was drawn into this coming of age story mixing with an outsider perspective, as Betty takes her Uncle’s advice and lands a scholarship at the college he teaches at in New York, far away from her family in North Carolina. In New York, Betty changes her name to Beth and is happy to talk about books with like-minded people. Finding comfort in a boy with a penchant for similar authors, Bruce (Colton Ryan) asks Beth for an introduction with her uncle, whose class he’s taking in the coming semester.
Ball has always had a lot of fun with his side characters, and in Uncle Frank he finds a way to make the stars of his film more likeable by making his side characters especially complex. Bruce is exceptionally notable. He introduces himself appearing as though he’s attracted to Beth and the audience enjoys the brief candid romance they seem to find themselves in, but as Bruce avoids intimacy to secure a meeting with Frank the nuance Ball intricately sews into the film provides the viewer the right idea in their suspicions which makes us feel for Beth, knowing that something more is going on. When Bruce and Beth overhear of a party Frank is throwing and crash it, Bruce reveals himself to Frank by making a pass at him. Clearly sure of himself in a forthright and commanding capacity, Bruce tries to seduce Frank with Beth inside the party. As the viewer’s suspicions of Bruce are validated, our central characters put the plot to a just end, strengthening the viewer’s connection through their convictions.
The audience also meets one of my absolute favorite characters in any media format of 2020, Wally, played lovingly by the scene-stealing Peter Macdissi. Macdissi, who is also Ball’s real-life domestic partner, shines as Wally and gives a genuine standout performance. He’s the heart and emotional compass for all of the people in Uncle Frank, wanting only the simplicities any rational person would want in a relationship: to meet the family of the person he’s in love with. From the moment he swings open the door to greet Beth and Bruce, Wally becomes the type of compassionate and most immediately likeable person in his simple elation of meeting Frank’s niece. It’s something so inherently simple sounding but means the world to Wally, who’s living in a much different societal climate.
While Wally races through the apartment to find Frank and inform him of his niece’s arrival it’s Bruce that finds him first. Frank struggles to tell Beth his reasons for throwing Bruce out of the party and in doing so reveals the truth about himself and his relationship with Wally. Beth’s immediate reaction to the news that the person that she admires the most in the world is gay is attuned more to the values associated to the era which we’re watching the events unfold—she isn’t dismissive but she is suitably shocked by the announcement. It’s Wally that reminds her that he’s still the same person.
Viewers should consider the Southern familiarity that Ball is incorporating into the production, one with a hardened focus on more traditional values, typically associated with less acceptance. Beth shows this by saying, “I’ve never known anyone that was gay,” to which Frank replies, “Of course you have, you just didn’t know they were gay.” The conversation that emerges from that morning following the party between Beth, her Uncle, and Wally is phenomenal as Beth is finally able to see her uncle for who he really is and was never allowed to be. The scene is cut short as word of the family patriarch, Daddy Mac, has passed and the family begins to plan arrangements back to North Carolina. The film now becomes a road trip movie as Beth, Frank, and Wally make their way home for the funeral.
For all of the love, intensity, and warm comedic moments baked into the first two-thirds of the coming of age perspective of Beth in the first act and the second act road trip where Beth gets to know her uncle and see him in a new light, Uncle Frank gets gut-wrenchingly dark in its final act as the film tries to do too much in the time that remains. The film shifts heavily towards the dramatic as it approaches the ending and it’s 95-minute runtime seems forced as it tries to unroot Frank’s deeply guarded secrets with a much stronger hand and faster pace. The first thought of comparison I had at the end of the film was that of 2014s This Is Where I Leave You, a movie that had a similar dark tone while treading through occasional bright spots, though I would argue that Uncle Frank incorporates a better story overall and far more memorable characters through its actor portrayals. If I can single anything out about the film it would be the incredible performances. Uncle Frank may end up being just okay overall, but it’s the power and beauty that Sophia Lillis, Paul Bettany, and Peter Macdissi infuse into their roles that truly make the film worth a watch.