In recent years, the crop of films that emerges around “awards season” always includes at least one high-profile LGBTQ-themed movie clearly aiming for consideration. You know the type of film I mean: glossy and slick, they usually feature at least one or two “name” actors with prestige value, center around a particular “issue” connected to being LGBTQ, explore progressive ideas while still reinforcing “good old-fashioned” cultural values, and are almost always the kind of heartfelt, sentiment-driven feel-good fare that Hollywood has been so adept at producing for at least the last century.
This year, right on schedule, that movie is “Uncle Frank.”
This Amazon-produced comedic drama is the latest work from writer-director Alan Ball, the out gay film and television icon responsible for creating “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” for HBO, as well as for penning 1999’s Oscar-winning “American Beauty.” Set in the early 1970s, it follows Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), a South Carolina teen who goes to New York to attend college at NYU, where her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a respected literature professor. He’s delighted to see her, but when she shows up unexpectedly at his apartment during a party, it leads to an awkward surprise for them both – her discovery that he lives with his longtime male lover, Wally (Peter Macdissi). Beth is fine with the revelation that her “cool uncle” is gay; but soon afterwards, when an unexpected development at home puts them on the road back to South Carolina together, Frank must confront his fears of a less accepting response – and his memories of a traumatic past – in order to find the courage to come out to the rest of his family, once and for all.
Embracing a nostalgic, literary sensibility with palpable echoes of such southern-set coming-of-age novels as “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee even gets name-dropped), “Uncle Frank” establishes itself from the beginning as a memory piece; we know right away we are in for a romanticized vision of the past, as seen through eyes that have gained the insight that comes with the distance of years. That allows room for a little forgivable sentimentality, which – because Ball is a superb writer – emerges through the warmth, humor, and humanity of the characters rather than in the kind of forced, cloying payoff moments that turn so many similar stories into unabashed tearjerkers.
It’s that same strong writing that elevates the movie above all the attendant tropes that come with the territory in these kinds of stories – and there are plenty, from a tragic backstory that could have been transplanted from an un-produced Tennessee Williams play, to a family of cartoonish southern stereotypes. These elements are part of the game that Ball plays so adeptly; he revels in sagas that find the extreme lying hidden within the mundane, and reveal the dynamics that shape relationships between people, especially families. And if the all-too-familiar story of a middle-aged gay man still closeted to his family is not quite as full of the outrageous twists to be found in the banal suburban hellscape of “American Beauty” or the vampire-infested bayous of “True Blood,” it still provides plenty of fodder for the writer to explore those themes with his customary intelligence and observational asceticism.
Of course, it helps a lot that he’s graced with a talented cast. The gallery of caricatures that make up the Bledsoe clan would not be infused with as much humanizing dimension if not for an ensemble of supporting players – led by the always-monumental Margo Martindale in what can safely be described as “the Margo Martindale role” capable of giving us likeable characters we can embrace, warts and all.
Still, there are higher stakes in “Uncle Frank” than the ones in Frank’s relationship with his family. Ball shrewdly centers much of his movie on the effects of his protagonist’s internalized homophobia – the lingering consequence of growing up in the closet – on his relationship with Wally. They are clearly a happy, loving couple; yet as the pressures build toward a confrontation back home, Frank pulls further and further away from his partner, trying to escape with alcohol and other substances, sparking domestic conflicts with projected resentments and a fear-based fight-or-flight mentality, and refusing to accept any offers of help and support. The movie doesn’t lean too hard on these themes – it’s ultimately meant to be uplifting, after all – but it doesn’t ignore them, either, and it’s a telling observation that we are never as deeply invested in the outcome of Frank’s coming out to his relatives as we are in the hope that these lingering demons from a painful past won’t sabotage his relationship with a partner who obviously loves him unconditionally.
Tying it all together, of course, is Beth, the fresh-out-of-the-nest fledgling who serves both as an observer and a catalyst in her uncle’s story. She’s the connecting thread between prodigal and family, obviously; but she is also the link between past and present. It is she whose experience shapes the narrative, finding meaning in Frank’s struggles and ensuring that his story is told with respect and compassion.
The actors in these key roles each do stellar work. Bettany’s performance in the title role is a career best, and not just because he is a straight actor who manages to portray a gay character without resorting to a single stereotypical mannerism; Lillis, known for starring in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” and “It,” is here a revelation of simple, unaffected acting as Beth; and as Wally, Macdissi (Ball’s real-life partner, who is Lebanese) exudes such an air of warmth and authenticity that he easily overcomes the character’s potential for being seen as a kind of idealized vision of “magic” ethnicity. Together, the three have excellent, believable chemistry that goes a long way toward making Ball’s movie work.
“Uncle Frank” is the kind of solid, compassionate, accessible film that pleases, perhaps in spite of having the slick, sanitized feel that comes with being the product of a well-oiled, profit-fueled entertainment machine. In true Hollywood style, its conflicts play out a little too neatly and a little too easily; it allows its audience to walk away at the end feeling like the problems have all been solved; and by couching its observations about homophobia in the quaintness of a bygone era, it makes us feel better about how far we’ve come.
Some might question, of course, if that’s really enough, and if the world really needs another coming out story.
The answer is, sadly, of course it does. If the last few years have shown us anything, it is that intolerance, bigotry, and hatred of the “other” is still very much alive in our culture; we might not all need to see movies like “Uncle Frank” in order to gain a little empathy and enlightenment, but there are a lot of people out there who do.
After all, Hollywood has always been at its best when it gives its artists a chance to change hearts and minds – and when the artists are as gifted as Alan Ball, why should anyone quibble?