Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Uncle Frank centers around a man with an inner conflict of being who he wants to be vs being who everyone tells him he is. Ironically, the film itself seems to share a similar inner conflict. It’s split into two halves. The first half is a coming of age film about Beth Bledsoe, an atypical teenage girl growing up in South Carolina. The second half is a family melodrama with a hidden secret that emerges to change the family forever. Between both of them, you have a road-trip movie that adds refreshing brevity. It’s unclear what type of film Uncle Frank is supposed to be but it is clear that the melodramatic second half is the less interesting part. It is the strong first half that keeps you emotionally invested in the second.
Uncle Frank is about a closeted gay NYU professor who has to return to his ultra-traditional southern roots to attend his father’s funeral. This isn’t an original story. It’s actually very cliche but what makes it interesting is that it’s shown from Beth’s eyes. Beth is the outsider of her family which makes her and her Uncle Frank kindred spirits. As she tells us through narration, her Uncle is the only one with whom she feels a strong connection. We see that at the start of the film. It starts with a birthday get-together for Daddy Mac or Beth’s grandfather.
Daddy Mac is the patriarch of the family and Beth notes that he does not hold back from showing his disdain towards his eldest son Frank whether privately or in mixed company, but she doesn’t know why. No one gives Beth any attention except for Uncle Frank. Beth and Frank are kindred spirits. They both don’t belong in South Carolina. Frank tells Beth, “You’re gonna be the person you decide to be, or you’re gonna be the person everyone tells you you are. You get to choose”. Beth takes this advice to heart and 5 years later, leaves her small town to go to NYU where Frank works.
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Shortly after being at NYU, Beth sees a whole different side of Frank. A side he has hidden from his family for a long time. She shows up at a party Frank is hosting unannounced and Frank introduces her to his boyfriend, Walid, that he’s had for 10 years. Beth takes this news easily and takes in this new environment. The tone changes quickly when Daddy Mac dies and the entire Bledsoe family has to return to South Carolina for the funeral. Walid sees this as an opportunity to meet the family. Frank objects but it’s not enough to stop Walid from secretly following Frank and Beth to South Carolina. Thus we enter the road-trip movie mode.
Beth’s role in the film gets progressively smaller as the film goes on and inversely, the focus on Frank’s role gets bigger which is disappointing. Beth’s character brings moments of sincerity that the film could not otherwise capture. The first half was also much more lighthearted than the second half. The expertly crafted comedic moments with Walid, Frank, and Beth are what builds rapport between the audience and the characters but that seemed to diminish as the film tended to center around Frank, leading to a melodramatic third act. By the end, there were times I forgot that Beth even there not to mention that she was our main character.
Uncle Frank’s story is one we’ve seen before. It’s one of a long-awaited family reunion, a devastating secret, repressed self hate and to top it all off, alcoholism. It’s the perfect storm for a dysfunctional family event. This storyline may have been the easiest one for Alan Ball, the director, and writer, but with such a strong first half it would’ve been nice to see what other ways Ball could’ve taken the story.
Cast And Characters
Every once and a while, you have an actor that gets lost within the character they are playing. Paul Bettany is one such actor who completely melts into the character of Frank. Apart from a performance full of intellectual nuance, what really makes Bettany standout as Frank is, as Ball put it, is overwhelming decency. The moment you see Frank you want to like him and by the time you hear him talk you’re already rooting for him.
Peter Macdissi as Walid is the heart of the film. His absolute candor juxtaposed against two stoic and introspective individuals was refreshing and added much-needed brevity. Sophia Lillis as Beth brings a warm naivete to the film that brings out the compassion in each character. Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, and Stephen Root were all well cast in their roles but didn’t have much to work with other than being the cliche traditional family that’s resistant to change.
Should you watch it?
Uncle Frank is a coming of age, family drama, road-trip movie with two protagonists. Even though there’s unmet potential, the story is engaging all throughout, the comedic moments are authentic, and the characters are a joy to behold. The strong character work for Frank, Beth, and Walid in the first half of the film will carry you into the last half excited to see how it will all end.
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