Uncle Frank (2020)

Beth (Sophia Lillis) is an impressionable young woman starting college in New York City, which is just about as far as she can get, both physically and mentally, from her hometown, the small working-class hamlet of Creekville, South Carolina, where the spectre of the past still lingers, despite being well into the 1970s. As a young woman, she never quite felt like she fit in there, especially since her grandparents (Stephen Root and Margo Martindale) raised their children to believe in old-fashioned conservative values, which naturally goes against the sensibilities of someone entering into their own liberal adulthood. The only other person in the family that Beth is able to relate to is her uncle, Frank (Paul Bettany), who is just as much of an outsider as her – a man compelled less by bible-thumping speeches and the simple life that he was raised to yearn for, he has adopted a life that fits his unique perspective, working as a well-regarded university professor in Manhattan, and thriving. Upon enrolling herself in university, Beth comes to know her uncle, finding out that he isn’t only a quiet, meditative middle-aged man, but someone who leads a life that she admires, but that most members of her family would find repulsive. He carries an enormous secret – he is gay, and has been in a committed relationship with Walid (Peter Macdissi), a charming and boisterous Arabic immigrant who fled his home country in fears of persecution for his sexuality. The trio forms an unlikely friendship – the two older men are thrilled but not surprised that Beth is a lot more open-minded than her peers, and she is readily accepting of her uncle’s lifestyle, even finding solace in his peculiarities, which she perceives as the most endearing qualities of a man she has always admired. A family tragedy forces them to return home, and Frank realizes this is not going to be an ordinary trip, as not only does he have to once again endure being on the outskirts of his family based on the path he has chosen, but also now has to deal with the fact that his family is on the precipice of finding out his secret – but he soon realizes that one can only hide in shame for so long before finding the courage to announce ourselves to the world as we are.

It’s a familiar formula – a young person finds themselves lost in a world they have never quite understood, growing into their adult years as a wayward soul, never quite knowing where life is going to take them, but through the presence of an older mentor figure (who embodies everything the protagonist aspires to be), they learn some of the most challenging lessons, emerging triumphant and more assured in their identity than ever. If we break it down to its essential components, Uncle Frank is nothing particularly special, functioning as a heartfelt, character-driven drama that reconciles themes of identity with the dominant conservative values of a bygone era. This is true, but also exceptionally reductive, especially since it doesn’t take long to realize the value in this film, which hails from the brilliant mind of Alan Ball, someone who has worked on a number of incredible productions that evoked some fascinating discussions while still being massively successful works of art in their own way. Uncle Frank is yet another well-written character piece that addresses issues of familial struggle, crises of identity and queer matters, in a way that only someone with the confidence of Ball, who has dedicated almost his entire career to venturing deep into the human condition, would be capable of. For this reason alone, we can already proclaim Uncle Frank as one of the year’s most surprising films, an absolutely delightful gem with enough heart to captivate an entire population of viewers, and a scathing sense of humour that finds the levity in what is essentially a harrowing story of two individuals lost in a world that is nothing but hostile to them, but who nevertheless press on, knowing that there is always hope on the horizon, even when its obscured with pain, tragedy and (perhaps most difficult of all) a lack of acceptance.

Films like Uncle Frank are always going to have exceptional merit based solely on the virtue that they’re willing to go to extraordinary lengths to tell stories that are often glossed over in more mainstream products. Contemporary cinema is naturally not quite as opposed to the concept of exploring queer issues as it used to be, but it is still mostly relegated to the realm of more independent fare, which is exactly where we find this film. However, Ball uses the platform to its full extent, crafting a compelling story of two people – a young woman trying to pin down her identity, and the older relative who finds the strength to not only accept himself as he is, but also be proud of the person he has become, through interacting with the impressionable niece, who somehow teaches him more about life based on her unique disposition than nearly anyone else has been able to. Ball is a gifted writer and director who extracts every bit of emotional resonance from a film that manages to be quite touching throughout, without becoming melodramatic or prosaic in how it delivers the timely themes of self-love and acceptance, which is a narrow tightrope to walk, but which Ball sprints across, never letting his guard down once in the pursuit of uncovering a series of unimpeachable truths embedded deeply in a film that benefits from a very peculiar sense of humour, and a heartfulness that can rival any of the other great family-focused comedies that attempt to lend insights into various aspects of existence that are still exceptionally relevant and more important than ever, which is addressed with sincerity and profundity here, creating a film with far more depth and nuance than we’d imagine based on a cursory glance.

Ball may have been involved in only a few productions over the year, but they are spread across nearly every conceivable medium, and whether working in film, television or on stage, there are some aspects that are always key to the success of his productions. Most notable is his commitment to developing real, authentic characters, which is a quality carried over to Uncle Frank with alarming consistency. This film would simply not have functioned had the work not been done to portray its central characters (as well as those in the periphery) in a way that felt genuine, with Ball composing some fascinating characters from the ashes of a long lineage of queer-oriented cinema. Paul Bettany is the star of the film, and he proves exactly why he’s one of the most consistently unheralded actors of his generation – his warmth as the titular Frank is unprecedented, bringing such depth and nuance to a character that could’ve so easily been the folly of stereotype. Bettany’s gangling frame and avian intensity gives the character far more complexity, with the actor using his unique physicality in the construction of the part. So much of this film’s success comes in how elegantly it avoids stereotype, and whether through Bettany’s convincing anguish, the quiet sensitivity conveyed through Lillis (an actress who has consistently shown a maturity in the quality of her performances far exceeding her young age) or the scene-stealing work done by Peter Macdissi (who is secretly the most impressive performance in the film, a fact that becomes clear the moment he appears on screen), the film is entirely committed to creating fully-formed, genuine characters that resound with an authenticity that can simply not come from someone who has not traversed a number of existential issues in his own professional and personal life, with Ball’s perspective being invaluable in relaying this beautiful story that finds the fundamental humanity in the most unexpected places.

There are a few areas in which Ball deviates quite significantly from conventions in the creation of this film. Based on a surface-level analysis, you’d be led to thinking that Uncle Frank is yet another entry into a very familiar kind of film – the irreverent comedy that uses larger-than-life characters in outrageous situations as a means to provide an in-depth exploration of far more serious themes. It’s a formula that works, but has become too conventional, which is troubling considering how this method was employed as a means to directly oppose the trivializing of queer issues on screen. Uncle Frank is far more intelligent than to be reduced to such a hackneyed structure, which is undoubtedly the result of someone with as assured a vision as Ball being behind the camera. Delving deep into a wide array of serious issues, which are presented with much more tenderness than we’d expect, the film constantly opts to take a path that may be filled with more obstacles, but allows the film to emerge victoriously, a much more meaningful text on negotiating identity than even the most profound works of gay-oriented literature tend to have trouble achieving. The humour is present but much more subdued – the storyline itself isn’t played for laughs, with the absence of trite attempts at deriving humour from awkwardness of low-level deviation being replaced with a more earnest approach to finding the gentle levity in the most unexpected places. It may mean that Uncle Frank isn’t a particularly funny film in the traditional sense, and its irreverence disintegrates almost immediately when the film hits its stride – but when you have a story as strong as the one Ball wove here, it doesn’t make much of a difference, and instead allows for a far more touching story to manifest from these fragments of melancholic nostalgia that Ball infuses into nearly every frame of the film.

Uncle Frank is a strong film – it may not be a departure from the recent wave of films focused on queer stories, especially since it seems more intent on contributing to a wider discourse as opposed to reinventing the genre. Having worked in queer-adjacent media for most of his career, Ball is incredibly knowledgable about how these kinds of stories unfold, both in terms of the literary context and in reality, which lends his work a rich, varied aura that helps it significantly in capturing the attention of the audience, who may not be expecting such a hard-hitting series of conversations to come from what appears to be just a quirky, well-meaning comedy, but becomes more of a lightweight drama that is clearly willing to venture deep into the recesses of its thematic context, extracting meaningful content that may be quite challenging, but ultimately yields significant space for genuine, earnest discussion that would otherwise not have been facilitated by a more blase approach to the material. This is bound to become an essential text when it comes to stories of sexuality – less of the common coming-of-age story, where a young person flirts with forbidden desire, and more of a complex elegy to a generation of lost souls who suffered under oppressive socio-cultural systems, Uncle Frank is a powerful ode to not only discovering one’s identity, but also celebrating it. Equally thought-provoking and tear-jerking, this film is a wonderfully heartfelt exploration of themes much larger than the form they arrive in, and through its honest and unflinching manner of looking beyond the confines of the genres it traverses, Uncle Frank becomes an absolute triumph, and a true gem from a year brimming with fascinating glimpses into life in various forms.


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