Uncle Frank

Uncle Frank. I dug it. This surprised me. UF is the new movie from Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty. I like and loathe AB in equal measures. While watching it, I’m transfixed. When it’s over, man what bunch of Oscar baiting hokum. So of course, it went on to win a slew of Oscars (5 in total. Covering all the major categories.). I mean, that one character who’s transfixed by a plastic bag whipped around by the wind? Gimme a break.

Ball didn’t direct Beauty. That was Sam Mendes. I lay whatever enjoyment I derive from the film at Mendes’s feet. He’s calmer, more elegant. He balanced Ball’s hysteria. But Mendes has nothing to do with this new movie. Uncle Frank is written and directed by Alan Ball. I expected more navel-gazing nonsense.

So imagine my surprise when, yeah, it’s alright. It’s still a melodrama. It still has a fair amount of clichés. But it works. It’s simpler. Less smug. Less over-the-top. Maybe Ball got those impulses out of his system with his kooky Southern gothic vampire series, True Blood?

Uncle Frank is about, well …Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). It’s told from the perspective of his niece, though, Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), who starts the movie as Betty, a name she hates. Makes her sound old, she says. Growing up in 1970s South Carolina, the deep South, with her extended family, Uncle Frank visits infrequently, but he makes an impression whenever he does.

A college professor in New York, he sticks out like a sore thumb at family reunions. He’s well read, loves the arts, and he treats the teenage Beth/Betty (Bethy?) like an adult. He encourages her to reach for more, go to college, leave the state to do so, and if she hates her name, he says, why not simply change it?

Uncle Frank’s pretty awesome. But he’s an outcast. Despite the clear love of his mother (Margo Martindale), he’s belittled and seemingly hated by his emotionally constipated father, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root).

Even if this weren’t an Alan Ball film, you could probably guess why.

When Beth moves to New York City to attend college, she sees Frank in his natural habitat, surrounded by intellectuals and free thinkers. She also meets his boyfriend, Walid (a wonderful Peter Macdissi).

As Beth digests this and a new, freer lifestyle in general, they get the news that Daddy Mac has passed away. Beth’s well-meaning but naïve mom (Judy Greer) insists that Beth drive down from New York to South Carolina for the funeral. She doesn’t trust airplanes is the explanation, but the real reason is that Alan Ball wants to get his characters in a car together for an extended period of time.

Yep. This is a road trip movie.

So, Frank and Beth hop into a classic car, or, as this is the ‘70s, they hop into a car and drive down to South Carolina. Soon they’re joined by Walid, who insists on meeting his significant other’s family, and what follows is what you’d expect: ghosts from the past confronted, dark secrets revealed, and eventually, hopefully, bonding.       

Paul Bettany, a Brit, does a terrific job in the title role. He plays a Southerner without falling into hammy caricature. He brings depth to Frank and his inner turmoil without having to explain it verbally. His Frank is just interesting, kind but imperfect, and he wears the heck out of his tailored clothing.

Speaking of clothing, in a nice move, the ‘70s décor and fashion isn’t over-the-top and garish in this one, and I noticed a shocking lack of shitty wigs. Nice.

The ‘70s setting is also used to make some pointed remarks about tolerance and acceptance over the time. Somebody will mention how “This is 1973,” and the morals of the time aren’t as backward as before. I don’t think it’s Ball being sarcastic, though. When I consider how difficult being gay would have been in the ‘70s, I never considered that, yeah, it probably was better than even 10 years prior. Kinda makes me think about how far we think we’ve come today. Despite our supposed woke-ness, will people look back 47 years from and note just how much further we still had to go?

Specific details like that, the clothing, the social mores, come from Ball’s own lived experiences (I assume, since was born in 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia) and lend the film an earned verisimilitude that gives us more than just a surface, tacky version of the past.

But not everything’s elegant and well detailed. Actually, there’s quite a bit of clunkiness here too. There’s the rote way this story is turns into a road trip, as mentioned earlier. And there’s other goofy shortcuts to get us to the drama. In a flashback, teenage Frank is having his first intimate moment with another man, and he does it in his room, in his family’s house, with. the. door. wide. open. I wonder, will somebody catch him?

The movie is slight. Not in a things are missing kind of a way. More like this feels like a novella kind of way. Its focus and message are so specific that the movie feels like it exists only to get to its well-meaning ending. But when the ending is as warm as this one, a sort of It Gets Better (Even in the ‘70s), well, I won’t complain.

Ball’s tone in past works tended to shift erratically. There’s a little less of that here, though it still has its moments: sweetness, sweetness and BAM, bitterness. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it from him and that’s why there seems to be less of it, but there’s also an affection here, a warmth that won me over. Ball could have easily turned this extended southern family into a bunch of yokels, a cruel stereotype. But he doesn’t. Still wish he would have given the wonderful Margo Martindale more to do.

If this had been the same exact story, but with sarcasm and cynicism, I would have hated it. It definitely has its weak spots: underdeveloped characters, a not so elegant way to get its story where it needs to go, but between the reserved period detail, the general warmth, and the great performances, yeah, I liked it.

At least nobody found beauty in a fucking plastic bag.

-Pavel Klein

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