Paul Bettany gives a stirring performance in Alan Ball’s ‘Uncle Frank’ – on Amazon

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(L-R) Paul Bettany and Sophia Lillis star in UNCLE FRANK Photo: Brownie Harris Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Living with the harsh reality that the United States Supreme Court is the most conservative since the 1930’s, we are faced with the possibility of reversal of protections – from healthcare to environmental. In that regard, Alan Ball’s compelling Uncle Frank couldn’t be timelier, as it’s a reminder of the harsh laws that governed alternative lifestyles and the consequences of getting caught.

Set in 1973, Uncle Frank is a family drama told through the eyes of young Beth Bledsoe, wonderfully played by Sophia Lillis. She lives in Creekville, South Carolina where her grandfather Daddy Mac, played by Stephen Root, is the strict patriarch at its head. Beth has been accepted by New York University, where her Uncle Frank, beautifully characterized by Paul Bettany, is a highly respected professor of literature and has avoided family visits for decades. From his remarks, it is clear that her grandfather does not like his son.

Beth doesn’t understand this as she finds her uncle to be the most interesting member of the family. He encourages her to reach her goals and in an intimate conversation, promises that he will always be there for her. What she is about to find out is that her uncle is gay and created an acceptable heterosexual lifestyle for the family.

At college, Betty becomes friends with Bruce, a duplicitous young man played by Colton Ryan who, although virgin Betty would like to have sex with him, he declines. She surprises Frank by showing up at his office with Bruce who she introduces as her boyfriend. Frank is happy to see her, but is swamped with work so the visit is short. Beth finds out that her uncle is having a party and decides to show up with Bruce. Frank’s lover Wally (Walid,) tenderly played by Peter Macdissi, opens the door and introduces himself as her uncle’s roommate.

Bruce finds Frank sitting on the fire escape smoking and offers a sex act. Frank tells him to get lost and warns Beth about who Bruce really is. It is during this visit that Frank reveals his true identity to his niece. Shortly after the party, Frank’s father dies and he is reluctant to go to the funeral. He knows his father has despised him since he was a teenager when he caught him in bed with a boy named Sam, played by Michael Perez. Wally encourages his partner to attend the funeral and to use that time to “come out of the closet.”

Wally wants to go with him but Frank says that’s a bad idea. In the meantime, Beth’s mother won’t allow her to fly home, so it becomes a fun road trip between uncle and niece. Beth is curious and wants to know if he ever kissed a girl and when he knew he was gay. It became clear to him when he was 16. In a flashback, he and Sam are swimming in a lake and have their first kiss. Despite telling Wally that he cannot attend the funeral, he follows them down and they run into each other at a gas station. Frank is upset and asks him why he didn’t respect his wishes, to which he replies, “I brought you a razor and a tie.” Frank’s car breaks down along the way so the three of them wind up in Wally’s convertible. They have to overnight in a motel and Frank tells him they must have separate rooms. “We could go to prison if we’re caught.” That revelation gave me goose bumps and served as a reminder of the incredible danger gay men faced at that time. Although Ball’s script deals with a very serious subject, there are plenty of laughs.

In one amusing scene, the desk clerk at the motel demands to know the relationship between them and after answering to her satisfaction, she insists the young girl must have her own room, which leaves the two guys to share a room. But being a closeted gay isn’t the only challenge Frank faces, as it appears he is a recovering alcoholic. Faced with the prospects of being with his family, he starts drinking again, which is of grave concern to Wally who says, “I won’t go through it again.” After the funeral, there are flashbacks and one where Frank’s father catches him in bed with Sam and tells him, “You can’t see that boy again. If you do, I’ll kill both of you.” The rest of the film focuses on Frank’s coming out, his father’s contemptuous last Will and Frank putting his demons to rest.

Director Ball’s script, captured on camera by Khalid Mohtaseb, underscored by Nathan Barr’s music, has skillfully revealed the horrors of being gay in that era without beating you over the head. It’s deft story telling and Bettany’s exquisite, characterization of Frank is Oscar-worthy as is Sophia Lillis’ portrayal of Beth and Peter Macdissi’s Wally. The rest of the excellent cast includes, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, and Cole Doman.
“Uncle Frank”
Where: Amazon
When: November 26, 2020
Running Time: 95 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R