By Zoe Kurland.
Uncle Frank takes many leaps of faith to peddle a strong message of self-love, yet leaves us with a forced reconciliation, tying a sloppy bow around a very unwieldy, amber-tinged package.”
Alan Ball’s latest film, Uncle Frank, opens in the midst of a South Carolina summer. A faux-antique tint signals that we are sometime in the past, though it looks more like everything was filmed through a glass of sweet tea. The camera (helmed by Khalid Mohtaseb) meanders around like a dizzy housecat, weaving us into the close-knit world of the Bledsoes, a family that revolves around the presence of an abrasive patriarch, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). After a few random outbursts, we learn that Daddy Mac has a short temper, especially around his son Frank (Paul Bettany), a literature professor who cuts a different shape in the space. A lithe slip of mustachioed elegance, Frank seems always just on the outskirts, leaning in the doorjamb like a crescent moon or reading alone on the porch, his legs stretched out across a daybed.
Frank is an outsider even among his family, a fact that does not go unnoticed by his young niece, Beth, played by Sophia Lillis in prime awkward adolescent form. Like her uncle, Beth likes books (fitting that one of her favorite authors is Harper Lee, as there is a Scout Finch quality to her wide-eyed musings) and doesn’t quite mesh well with the others. Beth and Frank bond over their outsider status, and when he tells her that she should be whoever she wants to be, Beth listens, leaving South Carolina to attend college at New York University four years later. Lillis does a wonderful job of simply being a kid; her Beth is both precocious and immature, curious but unknowing of things beyond the books she likes to read. Within her first few days in the big city, Beth ends up at a rollicking party teeming with Manhattanites, and after one too many martinis, she not only finds out that Frank is gay, but also that he has been living with his partner, Walid (Peter Macdissi), for the past ten years. The next morning, a hungover Beth barely has time to register this revelation before Frank gets a call telling him that Daddy Mac has died, sending this newly formed trio on a madcap road trip down South.
Though Bettany’s performance lends the film a great deal of credibility, he cannot singlehandedly carry Uncle Frank’s uneven pacing and empty dialogue.”
Bettany gives a gorgeously layered performance as Frank, painting a portrait of a graceful yet guarded man who wears his acquired urbanity like an armor. As long as he can surround himself with “respectable,” sophisticated things, he can avoid confronting his internalized homophobia. Though he appears at ease in New York with other like-minded city folk, each mile he drives into the South unravels his defenses, leaving him undone and vulnerable in the face of a long-repressed trauma– the death of a young lover.
Unfortunately, though Bettany’s performance lends the film a great deal of credibility, he cannot singlehandedly carry Uncle Frank’s uneven pacing and empty dialogue. Like too many projects around queerness, Ball’s film hinges on themes of trauma, addiction, and death, yet these elements feel like little more than emotional buttons employed to up the ante. In keeping with the melodrama, South Carolina seems more a convenient location than a deliberate one; though Frank, Beth, and Walid’s Kerouacian road trip cultivates a mild sense of place, Ball’s portrait of the town and the Bledsoes lacks the kind of complexity that raises the stakes. Ball rests on the film being set in the South for us to feel a sense of conservatism and hostility, but does not provide us with the more substantive, atmospheric details to make this manifest when it matters.
In the end, Ball switches back to Beth’s perspective, drawing a weak parallel between her coming of age and Frank’s coming out: “I remember thinking this is where I belong,” Beth says. “not like I belong to my family, it’s bigger than that, like every single one of us belonged there in that backyard on that afternoon.” Beth’s childish assumption that everyone is perfectly content seems a little too saccharine, especially considering the tumultuous nature of her uncle’s experience. In addition, the film never quite addresses the Bledsoe family’s willful ignorance of Frank’s homosexuality (and furthermore, his feelings), opting for smiles and hugs instead. Uncle Frank takes many leaps of faith to peddle a strong message of self-love, yet leaves us with a forced reconciliation, tying a sloppy bow around a very unwieldy, amber-tinged package.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.