Played by “Sharp Objects” breakout Sophia Lillis, Beth has always looked up to her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He couldn’t be more different from the rest of their ultra-conservative South Carolina family, or from any of the adults Beth knows in the small town where she’s lived all her life. And it’s not just because he lives in New York, or actually looks his niece in the eyes when he speaks to her, and listens to what she has to say — like, you know, girls should be heard and not just seen. Frank wears aftershave. He reads books. He tells Beth that she gets to choose who she is — that she doesn’t just have to be cowed into submission by her bellicose grandfather (Stephen Root), who rules over the whole clan with an iron fist and a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s 1969, but Frank seems to be the only one who knows it.
As Beth tells us in the pat, “American Beauty”-esque narration that bookends Alan Ball’s latest film: “Uncle Frank was the kind of person who I wanted to be.” So when Beth enrolls in NYU four years later and learns that her favorite relative is a closeted homosexual, the wide-eyed teen is both excited and also a little betrayed. What good is being your own person if you have to spend your entire public life pretending that you’re someone else?
At this early point in “Uncle Frank,” a rare crowdpleasing dramedy about the pains of self-denial, the movie brims with as much potential as its bright young heroine. It’s broad, to be sure — that much is clear from the opening titles, as Ball (“American Beauty,” “Six Feet Under,” and “True Blood”) has always vivisected American lives by seeing intense caricatures through the lens of their most intimate crises. But it also seems to boast the same confident sense of self-recognition that Beth is eager to find for herself.
Beth’s home life appears fully lived-in (an automatic consequence of casting actors like Margo Martindale and Judy Greer as warm backwater kooks). Her bond with Frank is mutually grateful in a way that makes you so glad they have each other. It’s endearing, albeit in a comfortably anodyne multiplex sort of way, to watch Frank give Beth a privileged glimpse into his closet; any contrivances are worth it for the delicate cocktail of anxiety and catharsis that sinks across Bettany’s face as Frank gets to introduce a family member to Wally (Peter Macdissi), the generous, funny, and enormously charismatic love of Frank’s life, and a first-generation Saudi Arabian immigrant who has a double life of his own. A movie about these humane and lovable characters blazing their own trail through the Big Apple might have been a beautiful way for Ball to explore his signature theme — marginalized people struggling to live without fear — in a more grounded register than usual.
Alas, that’s not quite the movie we get, as “Uncle Frank” begins to veer toward mawkish self-parody as soon as Frank gets word that his father has died of a heart attack. A road trip back to Creekville is in order, and a painful family reunion is waiting for Frank when he gets there. So is an open invitation for the recovering alcoholic to start drinking again, and the memory of a formative trauma so painful that he may never have even shared it with Wally (who invites himself on the adventure in a ridiculous way both genuinely amusing and ominously indicative of the story beats to come).
The drive itself is breezy enough, and the chemistry between the characters in that car is able to fuel the movie all the way to South Carolina as they swerve around routine homophobia like potholes in the highway. And yet, there are already signs that Ball’s script might struggle to thread the needle between its natural light-footedness and the melodrama that savvy audiences can all see coming down the road.
Ball understandably seems to enjoy writing for Wally, and in a longer and more patient film — or, say, a TV series — he could’ve indulged himself. But “Uncle Frank” races to churn through a lifetime of unspoken trauma in the span of a “True Blood” episode, and it can’t afford to (literally) boot Frank to the backseat. Bettany’s nuanced performance unfolds with a gentle beauty even in the film’s most aggrieved moments — he speaks in a sweet growl that churns the pain of his personal life into the poetry he teaches at NYU — but Frank’s return to alcoholism is primarily seen through its effect on Wally, while his surviving relatives are reduced to a Greek chorus of corned affectations. Add flashbacks, suicidal ideation, and Steve Zahn into the mix, and you’re cooking with pretty thin gruel even before you reach a will-reading scene subtle enough to make the family drama of “This Is Us” feel like Chekhov.
While there are a few truly moving detours along the way (including a brilliantly efficient sequence at the graveyard where Frank’s dad is buried), “Uncle Frank” fumbles through its fairy-tale finale so fast that it sours everything that came before, and underserves the difficulty of a gay man coming out to his hyper-conservative family in 1973 — or anyone coming out to any family at any time. Ball’s sincerity is hard to question, his prevailing lack of cynicism proves refreshing to the end, and he’s often just inches away from a more substantive exploration of the way that inherited fear can manipulate people into perpetuating their own marginalization. But if Uncle Frank becomes the person who Beth has always wanted to be, it’s hard to fathom to glean from this experience.
“Uncle Frank” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.