Developed as an exploration of survivor’s guilt and being gay in the 1970s, Uncle Frank leans a little more on the latter but does so with tender care. The initial plot is rushed to establish Beth (portrayed by a once again impressively grounded Sophia Lillis) and her relationship to her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), but the real story emerges once they take off on a road trip through rural America. While Beth is sadly pushed to the side in favour of the letting the titular character in to the limelight, it’s hard to not be pulled into Bettany’s shining mess of a man that just wants to live his life but has been challenged at every angle—sometimes by himself.
It’s 1973 and 18-year-old Beth has finally escaped her small hometown of Creekville to follow in her idolised uncle Frank’s footsteps and study in New York City. It is vibrant and new, and brings with it the discovery of Wally (Peter Macdissi, who also serves as a producer for the film), her uncle’s lover, and the reality behind Frank’s troubled connection with his family. But when a call announces the death of Beth’s grandfather —and Frank’s father— the two of them head off on a road trip to attend the funeral, only to be followed by Wally. His limitless compassion brings into question the priorities in life for both Frank and Beth.
In many ways, Uncle Frank feels like an experience I’ve never had but wanted so much as a teenager; to be whisked away by a mysterious, clever and somewhat-estranged family relation who shows you that there’s so much more to the world that what you think. And who better could you ask for than Bettany’s enchanting, charming and utterly encompassing Manhattan college professor Frank; of course Beth is drawn in and interested. But, while the story of Frank’s retribution after the death of his father is cathartic and a story so, so needed, you can’t help but notice Beth start to be forgotten in the corner of the room.
The film is a character piece above anything else. Due praise must be given to the chemistry between Bettany and Macdissi who anchor the heart of the piece in loving relationships, rather than the fraught ones they may sometimes be surrounded by. When the film feels weaker is when the filmmakers doubt the emotional capabilities of their actors; Lillis, Bettany and Macdissi are all perfectly capable of layering the subtext underneath their characters without saying a word (as well as pulling off the sometimes-offbeat comedy), but director Alan Ball sometimes falls back on voiceover and expositional flashback to be doubly sure.
This affects Sophia Lillis most of all, who isn’t given the space she deserves to be the protagonist. Placed as an observer more than an active agent, she ultimately feels wasted as Frank’s almost-not-quite-mentee, when she is more than talented enough to pull off a lead character battling the small-town norms she grew up with and this new progressive world she is being introduced to. That being said, there’s a definite universality to Frank’s experience that we’re able to latch onto instead; even if you live worlds away from small-town 1970s America, it’s unnerving how familiar feeling totally out of place in a family you’re supposed to belong in, even to the point of anger, can be.
For all its flaws, Uncle Frank is still a film well worth watching. Aside from the well-rounded performances and genuinely amusing comedy at points, there’s a nice nod to the greater discourse around the canon of queer films (particularly around their endings) and the progress we are now empowered to make in them. Even in its small way, it’s a film that feels like progress. We don’t often see such a straight-forward close lens on this kind of story; while it sometimes lacks subtly, it was a story many of us want to hear, and more of us need to.
Uncle Frank is released on Amazon Prime Video on November 25th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.