When Uncle Frank makes the journey from New York City to his home in small-town South Carolina, it always seems as if he has one foot out the door from the moment he arrives. When the family patriarch opens birthday presents with the entire clan gathered all around, Uncle Frank is on the fringes, almost in the hallway to the living room. Other times, he’ll steal away to the kitchen or to the front porch to escape the tension in the air — a tension created by years of conflict with his father, who can’t bear to look Uncle Frank in the eye and doesn’t hide his disdain for him.
That’s because Uncle Frank is gay, and though at 46 he has yet to come out to his family, his father knows the truth because he once walked in on the teenage Frank and another boy — a moment that led to a tragedy and to 30 years of simmering rancor between father and son.
You might remember the name of Alan Ball as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “American Beauty,” and the showrunner for “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.” Thirteen years after Ball made his feature directorial debut with “Towelhead,” his follow-up effort is a well-crafted, bittersweet, period-piece character study with a sharp screenplay (by Ball) and heartfelt and authentic performances from Paul Bettany as the title character, Peter Macdissi as Frank’s longtime partner Walid, Sophia Lillis as Frank’s adoring niece Beth and the brilliant duo of Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother, Mammaw Bledsoe, and Stephen Root as Frank’s unforgiving father, known to all as Daddy Mac. You give a cast like that some Tennessee Williams-esque material, and they’re gonna knock it out of the park.
“Uncle Frank” is set in the 1970s, with Bettany’s Frank having long since moved to New York City, where he works as a professor and is able to live his life in relatively open fashion. Not that Frank and his caring, loyal and quite wonderful partner Walid are out publicly, but they live together, and they host fantastic parties where they can be themselves among friends, and there are times when Frank can almost forget the painful past. For years, Frank used alcohol to self-medicate, but he’s trying his best to stay sober, and on the rare occasions when he has to return home, he endeavors to maintain an even keel, keep his distance from his father and enjoy some time with his brother Mike (Steve Zahn), Mike’s wife Kitty (Judy Greer) and his niece Beth (Lillis), who wants to escape the clutches of small-town life, just like the uncle she idealizes.
Beth’s family expects her to go the state university, get married and have a family, just like her older sister, but with Uncle Frank’s words of encouragement fueling her ambition, she moves to New York City to study and to reconnect with her beloved uncle. It’s not long before Beth discovers Frank is gay and Walid isn’t just his roommate but the love of his life. (Peter Macdissi gives such heart to this story as Walid, who is thrilled to finally meet someone from Frank’s family, in part because he knows he’ll never be able to tell his parents back home in Saudi Arabia he’s gay.) Frank, Walid and Beth have just started to bond when Frank gets word Daddy Mac has died. At Walid’s and Beth’s urging, Frank reluctantly agrees to come home for the funeral, and thus begins the road-trip portion of the story, with the obligatory rollercoaster ride of emotional ups and downs along the way.
Once they return home, we know there are going to confrontational fireworks and big reveals. Even from the grave, Daddy Mac plunges one last dagger into his son’s heart — a Last Will and Testament gesture that is devastating and sets off a chain of events that reverberate through the entire extended family. This presents the opportunity for writer-director Ball to deliver over-the-top moments of violent rage offset by quietly impactful scenes where the truth is embraced by some and rejected by others.
The London-born Paul Bettany completely disappears into the character of Frank, and thanks in equal part to Peter Macdissi’s finely honed work as Walid, they’re one of the most memorable romantic couples of the movie year. And young Sophia Lillis, who has resonated with her work as Beverly Marsh in the “It” movies, on the HBO series “Sharp Objects” and in the Netflix drama “I Am Not Okay With This,” continues to build an impressive resume. Even when the material in “Uncle Frank” wades into soapy, melodramatic waters, the performances are pure and powerful.