Written and Directed by: Alan Ball
Starring: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root
I had to laugh at “Uncle Frank,” which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
I had to laugh because life throws ironic curveballs when we least expect them to. Our greatest fears are realized in the moments when we reflect on our lives.
Note, I did not say choices. Our. Lives.
Frank Bledsoe, played by a mustached Paul Bettany, is as laidback as they come. A prestigious English professor at NYU, Frank comes from a God-fearing Southern family, where respect is the order of the day, and the linen room is full of secrets.
Alan Ball sets the stage for a more dramatic than funny story with a birthday celebration for Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). In between folks yelling at the kids playing in front of the TV, you can tell that the room is full of disapproval, though we don’t yet fully know why that tension exists. There’s a crass exchange between father and son when Daddy Mac opens Frank’s perfectly wrapped present – an electronic shoe polisher.
There’s a palpability in Bettany and especially Root’s performances right from the start. The disapproval of the present, as well as his son, is felt through the screen. Ball, who wrote the screenplay, shrugs the distant relationship off in exchange for hope.
Hope that the future can learn from past mistakes, see past family, and learn to be, namely in Sophia Lillis’ Betty Bledsoe. Yes, you’ll get to know her as Beth in the film, and that’s because, like her Uncle Frank, this child is the outcast, though for different reasons. At that same gathering, her cousins read sexually perverse passages from Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather,’ when Beth, not having read Puzo before, starts to describe the male unit in rather graphic detail. The way Ball shot that scene; you don’t mind her description.
It does set the stage for a future family outcast, but it also allows Beth the breathing space to create her own path, something her uncle Frank heartily endorses.
The film flashes forward four years where Beth begins life in the big city as an incoming freshman at NYU, where uncle Frank is a professor. Though the script makes no real effort to hide Frank’s sexuality, it smartly outs the character to Beth, who takes it in stride, along with her first adult beverage.
In this transitionary period, we get to meet Wally (Peter Macdissi), Frank’s partner, a loving and doting partner if there ever was one.
At this point, life hands Frank an ironic curveball – Daddy Mac’s funeral and all the literal trappings that come with that life event.
Bettany plays Frank with a stoicism; we aren’t told directly what’s going on and why Frank is truly fearful of this family ordeal, but we know in his face, in his actions, what will happen next, which Ball reveals in layers.
It might be easy for me to say that “Uncle Frank” is a cliché. I didn’t find it to be so.
Life has a way of throwing ironic curveballs at us when we least expect it. I could be the cliché and say that’s the spice of life. But when family doesn’t communicate, when things are so closed off that you have no choice but to live under a blanket, an emotional outburst is exactly what I would expect.
I can’t call “Uncle Frank” cliché because my coming out experience was not anything like what the film depicts. It took me nearly dying to say something finally. Though like Margo Martindale’s Mammaw Bledsoe, my mom knew. “Mother’s always know,” and unlike Stephen Root’s “Daddy Mac,” it took my dad some time to process, but he accepted me.
It makes me wonder if the film’s revelation, which I laughed at because of its crassness, wasn’t necessarily a dying man’s final words to his son, but his way of forgiving him. It’s odd and topsy turvy, but the character’s repressed feelings, the cathartic release that follows, and the misguided chase we’re taken on in the third act all work.
“Uncle Frank” might not be perfect. I don’t think any of us could claim to be. Life and its little ironies are a side effect of how we live our lives, not by our choices, but through our actions and words.
That’s why “Uncle Frank” is Recommended.