SYNOPSIS: In 1973, teenaged Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) leaves her rural Southern hometown to study at New York University where her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a revered literature professor. She soon discovers that Frank is gay, and living with his longtime partner Walid "Wally" Nadeem (Peter Macdissi) -- an arrangement that he has kept secret for years. After the sudden death of Frank's father -- Beth's grandfather -- Frank is forced to reluctantly return home for the funeral with Beth in tow, and to finally face a long-buried trauma that he has spent his entire adult life running away from.
No, this is not the long-awaited sequel to Uncle Buck, the 1989 comedy that stars the late John Candy just in case you are wondering. Uncle Frank in fact comes from the inquisitive mind of Alan Ball, the acclaimed writer and creator of American Beauty and Six Feet Under. As always, Ball is obsessed with themes dealing with gay and death and Uncle Frank is well, a frank example.
Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany) is a gay professor at a prestige New York university who has a live-in partner of over ten years, Wally (Peter Macdissi). He has a close relationship with her niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis) who kind of look up to him and in turn encourages her to pursue the things she likes. Moving to New York to further her studies, Beth and Frank has to travel back to rural Creekville, South Carolina to attend Daddy Mac’s (Stephen Root) funeral.
It’s a painful journey for Frank as he has to battle his own inner demons including his past confrontations with the ultra-conservative Daddy Mac and his own family who has yet discover his true sexuality. Making things worse for Frank is Wally’s insistence on following him back on the road trip which increases Frank’s worriedness of being “out” by the conservative folks.
Uncle Frank is part road trip, part family reunion and covers a lot more ground than the average dramedy considering its slim runtime of 95 minutes. Ball’s writing as usual is sharp, witty and occasional funny courtesy of Wally. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable journey as Ball brings the audiences along on the ride with Frank, Beth and Wally. We are introduced to how humane Frank and Wally really are. We are devastated about Frank’s tragic past with his young lover. We are still puzzled as to why the topic of being gay is still as controversial as ever.
Clearly, this is a movie that tugs at your heartstrings. There are many well-crafted, well-acted scenes though the ending kind of wind up too perfectly and easily. But that’s just a small gripe. The characters and story are top-notch examples of great storytelling. Paul Bettany perfectly embody a tortured character, seemingly carefree on the outside but torn, hurt on the inside. Wally is a religious and family man but deep down, his love and care for Frank is undeniable.
Sophia Lillis who broke into the Hollywood scene with the horror thriller, IT continues to amaze with her emotive performance as Beth, a coming-of-age lady who sees the real world through two lovers who are waiting to be accepted by their families. Other familiar faces include comedian Steve Zahn as Frank’s younger brother, Judy Greer as his wife and veteran actress Lois Smith as Frank’s mild-senile aunt.
First and foremost, Uncle Frank is not a simplistic, stereotyping movie that tackles about old closeted gays, it’s a relatable drama about well, human beings. Strong performances is the main draw and Ball’s steady direction and writing deserved a commendation as well. Easily one of the best dramas on streaming right now.
Review by Linus Tee