Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Alan Ball
Writer: Alan Ball
Actors: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Jane McNeill
By Joan Amenn
All families have secrets. Some stay hidden for generations, and some come to light with the death of a loved one who made it imperative to hide the truth. “Uncle Frank” (2020) may start some discussions about acceptance and tolerance over the holidays as we Zoom our greetings to one another; and perhaps this is a good year to reach for a little more compassion, a little more understanding. It is set at a time when neither were in ample supply for the LGBTQ community, specifically in one family from South Carolina.
The 1970’s were a violent, troubled period of American history. “Uncle Frank” depicts New York City as being an urban oasis of tolerance that other places, such as the small town where Frank (Paul Bettany) grew up and his family still lives, lacked. This is not true. New York witnessed the Stonewall Riots in 1969 which gave birth to the Rights Movement for the LGBTQ community but the seventies were a continuation of that struggle. Frank is a college professor at New York University and he encourages his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis) to apply to college there as a ticket out of her small town and smaller minded family. She eventually comes to realize her favorite uncle has a secret that explains why he is estranged from most of the rest of the clan.
While Paul Bettany is brilliant as Frank, especially in his hinted at self-destructive tendencies, the reveal of the origins of his internal pain seems a bit of a retread. The film does not offer anything unique in this story of family rejection and eventual acceptance. The family patriarch, played by Stephen Root, is a one-dimensional bigot which is a waste of his considerable acting talents. Beth seems to jump into her new identity as an enlightened, assertive woman a little too easily after bouncing back from a disastrous first romance. Frank’s partner, Walid (Peter Macdissi) is charming, funny and entirely too kindhearted to be believable, especially after an ugly scene with Frank. Why he would not only stay with him but also try to bridge the emotional divide with his family is something of a mystery.
Overall, “Uncle Frank” is worth seeing for the performances of Bettany and Macdissi but there is little for the rest of the cast to do. Beth seems to get short shrift in her story as a young woman who wants more from her life than being known as a high school baton twirler. She isn’t all that instrumental to the plot which makes her character a strangely detached observer of her own family’s drama. Director Alan Ball is best known for the film “American Beauty” (1999) and the series “True Blood” (2008-2014). ‘Uncle Frank” seems like a tentative toe in the water of his return to the screen rather than a fully executed dive.