Alan Ball has had a varied career in film and television for the past three decades. He won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Sam Mendes’ American Beauty and has since conceived the hit television series, Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball’s latest endeavour, on this occasion from the director’s chair is the Paul Bettany led 1970s set Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank is a sweet road-trip film dealing with the Bledsoe family coming to terms with the death of their patriarch and Frank’s desire to hide the fact he is gay from his conservative family.
The film acts as a fine vessel for Bettany’s talents to shine through, so often is he the supporting player in larger ensemble affairs like The Avengers films or The Da Vinci Code that he rarely gets his dues in leading roles. It is refreshing to see him cast against type here, gone is his familiar English accent and he really is the film’s heart and soul. Frank’s relationships with his niece Beth and boyfriend Wally are firmly at the centre of proceedings. As such it is largely this trio that the story focuses on and is all the better for it.
Beth’s move from conservative Creekville to University in Manhattan, where Frank is a lecturer, forms the early part of the film’s story as we see her acclimatise to her new surroundings. The news of family tragedy drives her and Frank to return to Creekville and the film shifts gear into a road-trip. This allows for some tender moments between Bettany and Sophia Lillis (It) and the contrast in their experiences of life and the sense of world-weariness Bettany is able to bring as a result is impressive.
Bettany does some of his best work in years, really selling Frank’s inner conflict and the difference between how he wants his family to see him and how he really is. He is given some fine support in the shape of rising star Lillis as Beth and Peter Macdissi, a frequent collaborator of Ball’s and his real life partner. Lillis does a fine job showing Beth encountering the world for the first time and the emphasis Frank has played in her life, compared to the other more traditionalist members of her family. In contrast to some other films, it is invigorating to see someone playing a University/College student who is actually age-appropriate.
Macdissi brings much of the humour, balancing out the story’s darker moments, Wally also more tender moments with Frank. The pair’s unlikely relationship is wholly believable and the chemistry between Bettany and Macdissi is fantastic. While the trio do drive much of the narrative, the supporting cast doesn’t really get its chance to shine to the same level with talents like Judy Greer and Mrs America’s Margo Martindale relegated to largely extended cameos that don’t leave as much of an impact as actors of their calibre ought to.
Uncle Frank does perhaps feel like two films in one as there is a clear desire to have both Beth and Frank’s stories front and centre. Ultimately this is Frank’s story as he struggles to let go of his difficult relationship with his father and hiding his sexuality from those closest to him. While we do initially get an eye into Beth’s world, this in many ways acts to further Frank’s story and as a result we lose track of Beth along the course of the film. The flashbacks to Frank’s childhood add some context to the relationship with his wider family in particular his father, these are however too short to influence the film as perhaps they should.
While led by some charming lead performances, especially Paul Bettany giving some of his best work in years, Uncle Frank ultimately feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity. It is a well-made film and has its share of fine moments it perhaps struggles to truly come together as a cohesive whole and there is somewhat of a lull in its middle act. It is worth seeking out on the strength of its performances and for its 70s period setting. Tonally the film struggles with whether it ultimately wants to be a drama or more of a road-trip comedy and as a result we end up somewhere in the middle; without a full commitment to either genre, which perhaps would have enriched its narrative.
Uncle Frank is available on Amazon Prime from November 25 2020