Boasting an incredible lead performance from Paul Bettany, Uncle Frank relies on tropes and ineffective dialogue to tell this road trip story that features a surprisingly emotional third act.
The newest addition to the road trip subgenre comes in the form of Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank, a tender film about a gay man going back home with his niece for his father’s funeral. Ball’s drama revolves around Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany), the clear outsider within the family and the only person his niece, Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), can relate to in her small Southern community. After the first scene which shows the aforementioned circumstances, the film fast-forwards to a time in which both Frank and Beth live in New York City, one a teacher and the other a student at NYU.
The first 45 minutes of Ball’s film plays out like many movies before it, with Beth meeting and dating a guy, going over uninvited to Uncle Frank’s apartment for a party, and finding out that he’s gay, of course after her boyfriend tries flirting with her uncle. The next morning, Beth gets a proper greeting to Frank’s long-time boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi) and while eating breakfast, they receive a call that Frank’s father Mac (Stephen Root) has died. Due to Beth’s mother’s fear of flying, the family members decide to take a road trip down to South Carolina for the funeral, hoping to grow closer along the way.
Ball’s script falls into the traps of previous road trip films, and previous family dramas, with the unaccepting father, loving mother, and understanding niece taking their respective places. The flashbacks used to show Frank’s childhood, especially his first homosexual experience, lacked a strong necessity, instead feeling manipulative with the swelling music, the muted laughing, and the “let’s go down by the lake” vibes. Uncle Frank suffers most during its second act, as the tension and stakes are as low as can be. Frank hasn’t shown a great deal of empathy towards Beth, and their relationship comes off as forced and unnatural.
Ball’s film comes alive in its third act, though. With Paul Bettany giving an absolutely fantastic performance and Sophia Lillis coming close to matching him step for step, the film explores Frank’s alcoholism, childhood guilt, and declining self-worth. A watered-down road trip film becomes a more engrossing character study, with the supporting cast shining through the likes of Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, and Steve Zahn. Peter Macdissi keeps the tone light and warm with his portrayal of Frank’s boyfriend, a man that cares more than he probably should.
By the last fifteen minutes, many audience members were and will be in tears. Frank’s struggles are much more interesting than his triumphs, his trauma more engrossing than his teaching, and his fears more important than even his relationships with Beth. Uncle Frank works when it’s less about the family uncle and more about the man Frank.
This review was filed from Sundance 2020. Check out all of our coverage from the festival.
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