Movies about coming out of the closet have become a genre unto themselves with stories ranging from coming out due to AIDS to coming out amidst religious oppression. Each of these has validity in that people in the LGBTQ community have experienced such moments. There have even been stories of coming out that took place in history such as Maurice during the Edwardian time in England and now we have a movie set in the ’70s in rural South Carolina titled Uncle Frank.
Beth Bledsoe is anxious to get out of her tiny town of Creekville, South Carolina. She doesn’t get on much with her family except for her Uncle Frank who lives in Manhattan and is a university professor. She doesn’t know much about Frank except that he is somewhat treated as the black sheep of the family especially by Beth’s grandfather, Frank’s dad. Beth works hard to get good grades and gets a scholarship to go to the same university that Frank teaches at. She spends some time with him and when she learns that he is having a party at his place she, along with someone pretending to be her boyfriend, crashes Frank’s party and she learns more about Frank than she realizes. She discovers that he is gay and that the man pretending to be his roommate, Walid or Wally who is Arabic, is actually Frank’s boyfriend and they have been a couple for a number of years. While Beth is learning all of this Frank receives a phone call from his mother where he learns that his father suddenly died of a heart attack. Frank promises that he will go back for the funeral and Beth will be going with him. He begs Wally not to go with him, but he follows along anyway to provide moral support. The family reunion is mostly awkward for Frank whose behavior is slightly puzzling. He starts drinking behind Wally’s back and when the Last Will and Testament is read the truth about Frank is revealed in probably the most horrific and ugliest of ways.
This movie from Amazon Studios was quite a surprise for me. The trailer gave the impression that this was to be a mostly lighthearted movie and even marked as a Thanksgiving movie, despite having received an “R” rating. While the first part of the movie might be considered somewhat light, once the story returns to Creekville it is anything but light. This is a very heavy drama dealing with some very powerful truths about the mindset of people in small country towns towards people that might be viewed as anything but straight or even “normal.” Even mixed relationships are frowned upon so the idea of a same-sex relationship would certainly be regarded as one of the cardinal sins. Uncle Frank presented these issues with very brutal and tragic honesty. Frank, magnificently played by Paul Bettany, represses all of his resentment towards his father, but the consequences of that repression have far greater ramifications than we realize when a flashback scene depicts a moment of the most horrifying humiliation imaginable that brings about an even greater tragedy. While this particular story may not be entirely true, it is still filled with thematic truths as we see of a time and place that still exists today in rural America, and to some, it can be heartbreaking.
The performances are spectacular from all directions. Bettany as Frank comes off as charming and strong, especially when in New York, but the moment he arrives back home with his family he becomes the tortured child. Bettany gives us Frank’s regression throughout the road trip from Manhattan back to Creekville, culminating in a scene where he has a face-to-face talk with his mother where finally see how beaten down he has become.
Peter Macdissi, who is the real-life partner to the movie’s writer/director Alan Ball, as Wally is the biggest delight in the movie. We first meet him when Beth does in the movie and he is delightfully charming as well, but completely different from Frank. They both hide their sexuality from their families, but while Frank’s is from shame Walid’s is out of fear for his life as homosexuality can warrant beheading. But as long as Walid is in the US he operates with his life openly except where it might complicate matters for Frank. While Frank’s charm is a mask to hide his shame and guilt from others as well as himself, Walid’s charm is genuinely from his heart as is his capacity for loving others around him. Macdissi delivers a beautiful warmth to the character of Walid that makes it impossible for anyone to not love him. Lastly, of the main cast, there is Sophia Lillis as Beth. From the very beginning, we see a wisdom in Beth but colored with an innocent naivety. Even as she learns the truth about Frank as she is thrust into the ultra-modern (for the ’70s) world of New York and reacts like the typical “fish out of water” her wisdom comes into play when she has her heart-to-heart conversation with Frank after he has hit rock bottom, and Lillis plays this with the utmost authenticity imaginable. For her to display both that innocence and wisdom beyond her years at the same time is jaw-droppingly amazing.
There are some wonderful secondary characters as well who make up members of Frank’s family including Steve Zahn as Frank’s younger brother Mike who delivered some beautiful moments that were surprising due to the strength of his performance. Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother Mammaw Bledsoe was all heart wherein one scene she spoke with such deep love that she brought tears to my eyes. Lastly, there is Stephen Root. While he is largely known for light and comedic parts, his performance as Frank’s father, the cold-hearted Daddy Mac, was shocking in its truthfulness. Even though his on-screen time was short it was without a doubt very memorable.
Uncle Frank is not a movie that should be approached lightly. Even my husband, who grew up in Oklahoma, found elements that hit just a bit too close to home for him. Still, it is a movie that tells of a time that was just as much real then as it is real now. It is a movie about rejection, acceptance, and family. It is powerful, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful.
I give Uncle Frank 5 out of 5 stars.
Uncle Frank comes out on Amazon Prime November 25, 2020.