Uncle Frank

 

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Alan Ball, the talent behind American Beauty and Six Feet Under, exposes Southern prejudice with his most personal work to date. 

 
Uncle Frank

Road to perdition?: Sophia Lillis and Paul Bettany

 

Beth has a real affinity with Uncle Frank. In fact, he is probably the favourite member of her family. Growing up in 1960s’ Creekville, South Carolina, Elizabeth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) is pure peaches-and-cream, but beneath all that home-grown sweetness is an intelligence that sets her apart from the rest of the Bledsoe clan. Which is why she is drawn to Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who’s left town to make his name as a prominent literature professor at NYU. In her homely voice-over, Beth tells us that Frank is the only one who actually treats her like an adult and listens to what she has to say. He also keeps his nails trimmed, wears aftershave and is smart and funny and considerate. “He was,” she says, “the kind of person I wanted to be.”

 

The family chaos of Southern life is deftly caught in the opening scenes, with the women folk fussing in the kitchen, the children running riot and the menfolk watching football while quaffing their beer. But outside on the veranda there is uncle Frank, filling Beth’s head with big ideas and Madame Bovary. Then, four years later, Beth is eighteen and is studying at NYU herself, thanks to the far-sighted encouragement of her uncle. And, while preserving her virginity, she has even got herself a boyfriend. Then, turning up unannounced at Frank’s apartment, she discovers he’s living with another man. That man, Walid Nadeem (Peter Macdissi), doesn’t drink, won’t touch bacon and prays to Mecca every morning. Lil’ Beth isn’t in Creekville anymore…

 

It’s been a busy fortnight for mainstream films about closeted homosexuality. First there was the festive romcom Happiest Season, in which Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart have to play it straight for the sake of familial appearances. And a week later there was Viggo Mortensen’s Falling, in which the actor plays a gay man confronting his father’s homophobia. Uncle Frank is written and directed by Alan Ball, who won an Oscar for his first screenplay, American Beauty (1999), and went on to create such hit TV series as Six Feet Under and True Blood. And, like Frank Bledsoe, he grew up in the Deep South (Georgia) and is gay. In fact, his partner, the Lebanese actor Peter Macdissi, plays Frank’s boyfriend in the film. And for a real shot of autobiographical realism, there’s a scene where Paul Bettany sobs over the gravestone of one Sam Lassiter. It wasn’t until Alan Ball, aged 33, had come out to his mother that he learned that his late father had been “a real, real, real good friend" of a man called Sam Lassiter, who had drowned while working with him at summer camp.

 

It’s a hugely personal story then, and, as we all know, Alan Ball is a highly accomplished screenwriter. His coup d'état is exploring the prejudice in his story through the eyes of a compassionate spirit still wet behind the ears – guilelessly played by Sophia Lillis. She is the beating heart of the film, the spunky innocent who sees people for what they are, while learning on the hoof the lessons that life doles out. And as Frank, Paul Bettany brings both enormous grace and pain to his reading. Being English, his ‘otherness’ seems perfectly in keeping with Frank’s. Others in the cast – Margo Martindale, Lois Smith and Judy Greer – prove all pros to the manor born. Like Green Book, the film highlights the cruelty of small mindedness in salient strokes, and does so with skill and humour. And the final act, stoked by Nathan Barr's emotive score, shouldn't leave a dry eye in the house.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Jane McNeill, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Cole Doman, Burgess Jenkins, Michael Perez, Voltaire Council, Dave Blamy.

 

Dir Alan Ball, Pro Bill Block, Michael Costigan, Jay Van Hoy, Stephanie Meurer, Peter Macdissi and Alan Ball, Screenplay Alan Ball, Ph Khalid Mohtaseb, Pro Des Darcy Scanlin, Ed Jonathan Alberts, Music Nathan Barr, Costumes Megan Stark Evans, Sound Kent Sparling.

 

Miramax/Your Face Goes Here Entertainment/Byblos Entertainment/Cota Films/Parts & Labor-Amazon Media.

95 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 25 November 2020. Available on Amazon Prime. Cert. 15.