'Uncle Frank': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Six Feet Blunder.

Paul Bettany stars as the gay professor title character opposite Sophia Lillis as his adoring niece in writer-director Alan Ball's second feature.

Uncle Frank marks the return to feature filmmaking after a long hiatus for Alan Ball, the innovative showrunner behind TV's Six Feet Under and True Blood. (Ball's only previous feature credit for both writing and direction, Towelhead, came out in 2007; he won an Oscar for his script for American Beauty in 1999, but did not direct it.)

It would be a pleasure to hail Uncle Frank, a comedy-drama road movie set in the 1970s about a gay man (Paul Bettany) confronting his past, as a triumphant return to the feature format but, sadly, the result is a hot mess. Although clearly made with earnest good intentions, this shabbily constructed work feels way too thirsty for audience love as it strings together a series of life-affirming, message-laden and sometimes embarrassingly anachronistic moments that feel too unconnected to satisfy as a drama. Altogether, it's as if Ball smashed up some old scripts and made this mosaic out of the jagged shards. The result ain't pretty, or even in focus half the time. (The cinematography, credited to Khalid Mohtaseb, is full of painful angles and fuzzy close-ups and the jaundiced hue makes it look like it was developed in a vat of Mountain Dew.)

Told through the voiceover narration of young Elizabeth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, from TV's Sharp Objects and the recent It features), the story starts in 1969, when the 14-year-old protagonist is called "Betty" by everyone in her large extended family. At a typically noisy get together at the family homestead in deeply rural Creekville, South Carolina (although, bizarrely, the locations used were in North Carolina, so why not just set it there?), the women toil in the kitchen while the menfolk watch television. It all seems very downhome, happy-clappy and Southern Nice until something pisses off grouchy patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) and the whole room freezes in fear.

Bookish, academically minded Betty doesn't feel like she really fits in with this if not redneck then at least pinkish-necked horde. Only her elegant bachelor uncle Frank (Bettany), a literature professor at New York University, seems to get her, and tells her she can reinvent herself into anything she wants to be, or some kind of bumper sticker slogan like that.

Flash forward to 1973 and our heroine has indeed rebranded herself (but not changed her Member of the Wedding tomboy haircut) and now goes by Beth instead of Betty. She's come to the Big Apple to study at NYU, and in an expedient flash she gains a boyfriend named Bruce (Colton Ryan) who talks her into crashing a party at Frank's house one evening. That's how she discovers that Frank lives in sin not with bohemian Charlotte (Britt Rentschler), as she and her parents (Judy Greer and Steve Zahn) were led to believe, but with Wally (Peter Macdissi, from Towelhead, and Ball's last single-season series Here and Now), also known as Wahlid, a Saudi immigrant. This would explain why Frank never brought a wife or girlfriend down South to meet the family.

This new information has only started to sink in for Beth when the phone rings and her grandmother Mammaw Bledsoe (Margo Martindale, underused) calls in tears to announce that Daddy Mac has gone up to the big Barcalounger in the sky. Frank and Beth set off on a long drive for the funeral, secretly followed, it later transpires, by Wally, who insists he's stalked them because Frank will need him for emotional support on the trip and not because he's controlling or anything.

Terrified by the thought of coming out to his family and increasingly haunted by memories of what happened 30 years ago when Daddy Mac caught him (played as a youth by Cole Dolman) in flagrante delicto as a teen with his first boyfriend Sam (Michael Perez), Frank starts to fall apart. Despite having been teetotal for years, he starts squirreling mini bottles of bourbon around his car and hotel room and becomes increasingly belligerent with Wally, his family once they get to Creekville and even Beth.

As the film works towards a contrived climax, many viewers may find themselves moved by Frank's tortured, internalized self-hatred, which Bettany really milks in a graveside crying jag, and by Wally's cloyingly underscored good-heartedness. That's made all the more noble given he can never come out to his own family because men are killed for that in Saudi Arabia (and still are today). But the script's virtue-signaling is ham-handedly executed, and not just in relation to the gay characters. Beth suddenly comes out with a stream of feminist assertive-speak to put down a letchy garage mechanic with bad teeth. Characters established earlier as bigots have sudden changes of heart later on.  

That said, there are some pleasing moments when Ball seems to take delight in showing how people can be surprising even to themselves, a running theme across his work. For example, in just one throwaway scene a minor character who is predicted in 1969 to become miserable because she gets knocked up by a teenage sweetheart turns out to be deeply happy in her marriage four years later. Even Aunt Butch (eminent thespian Lois Smith and yes, that really is the character's name) can show love to Frank, though she insists sorrowfully that he will burn in hell for being gay. The wry way Ball lets the scene plays out hints at the better film this might have been if tweaked in the right directions.

Production: A Miramax presentation of a Your Face Goes Here Entertainment, Byblos Entertainment, Cota Films, Parts & Labor production
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root
Director-screenwriter: Alan Ball
Producers: Bill Block, Michael Costigan, Jay Van Hoy, Stephanie Meurer, Peter Macdissi, Alan Ball
Executive producers: Bob Osher, Andrew Golov, Christopher Tricarico, Josh Peters, Isaac Ericson
Director of photography: Khalid Mohtaseb
Production designer: Darcy Scanlin
Costume designer: Megan Stark Evans
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Music: Nathan Barr
Music supervisor: Gary Calamar
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: UTA

94 minutes