Review: “Uncle Frank”

It’s been a while since a movie has ripped out my heart out and repeatedly stomped it into the ground while still giving me a sense of hope. Such a film is Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank, available now on Amazon Prime.

Part family drama, part road-trip movie, part coming-of-age story, and part coming-out-late-in-life tale, it’s a stunningly written and performed piece that balances it harsh realities of growing up gay in the 1970’s South with humor that refuses to venture into stereotypes. It resonated with me for reasons that many will appreciate and that others will never know or understand.

Paul Bettany plays Frank Bledsoe, a New York University professor who always seems to be on the outside looking in at family gatherings back in South Carolina. When his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) enrolls at his school, it’s not too long before she discovers Uncle Frank’s roommate Wally (an endearing Peter Macdissi) is more than that. The passing of Frank’s father (a brutal Stephen Root) necessitates a road trip home where truths will out in one of the most vicious, cruel, and heartbreaking scenes put to film.

I hesitate to get any more specific as this is the type of film so layered it would be a disservice to the audience to reveal much else. Suffice it to say it had me tearing up and outright bawling by the end. Ball, who first broke through with HBO’s Six feet Under, doesn’t sugarcoat the situation or the personalities (apparently it is somewhat autobiographical) and the realism he brings to the story is a welcome respite from the frequently over-the-top campiness and outright fantasies of Ryan Murphy.

The fine work done by all leads is matched by the superb supporting cast, including Margo Martindale as Frank’s more-worldy-than-anyone-realizes mother, Lois Smith as his deeply Southern Aunt Butch, and the criminally underseen Steve Zahn as Frank’s younger brother Mike.

Uncle Frank is not always an easy film to watch and, although often funny, it is certainly not quite the light-hearted lark the trailer would seem to make it out to be. Its theme can be found in the dialogue from a conversation early in the film: “You’re gonna be the person you decide to be or the person everyone else tells you you are,” Frank tells Beth.  “You get to choose.”

It takes a while for Frank to heed his own words, but when that moment comes you feel the weight being lifted from his soul.

I encourage those who’ve watched the recent remake of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band and found it a bit heavy on the self-loathing side to consider this as a companion piece. It’s a beautiful film.

Uncle Frank is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.

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