REVIEW: ‘Uncle Frank’ Goes Straight For the Heartstrings

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Uncle Frank

Coming into the 2020 holiday season, it seems that diversity and expansion of traditional genre norms are at the foundation of many holiday releases. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ films, with entries like Happiest Season taking on the traditional Christmas rom-com. Uncle Frank takes a similar approach as a “home for the holidays” type film that features a closeted gay man, but Uncle Frank offers so much more. It is a film that comfortably understands the heartache, challenges, and courage that comes with accepting yourself and asking for the acceptance of others.

Uncle Frank is helmed by writer and director Alan Ball (American Beauty) and stars Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis (IT), and Peter Macdissi. The film is taken up several notches by an equally amazing supporting cast featuring Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, and Stephen Root.

Set in the strange duality of the American South and New York City, in the early 70s, Uncle Frank tells two distinct stories. The Bledsoe family exists under meek submission to the conventions of their community and the iron-fisted rule of the family patriarch. Beth (Lillis) sees things differently and turns her ambitions to the possibilities outside of her small town. No one understands this better than her Uncle Frank (Bettany), the black sheep of the family and target of her grandfather’s spite.

It’s not until Beth moves to New York for school that she learns that her Uncle Frank is not only gay but has shared a rich and loving life with his partner Wally (Macdissi) for many years. The safe and intimate world Frank has created for himself suddenly shatters when the family patriarch dies, causing Frank and Beth to travel south for the funeral. Wally tags along to finally encourage Frank to come out to his family and Frank must face his fears and pain, past and present.

The central theme of Uncle Frank is not as simple as a story of coming out and queer politics within the family. The crux of it all is that this is a film about the importance of being seen and heard and loved. We rely on our families — chosen and born to — to hold us. In the case of Frank and so many others, being closeted and grappling with honoring your truth while desperately hoping to be understood, accepted, and loved is a burden that some endure their entire lives. Uncle Frank is a story that instantly feels familiar and tragic, as it recollects the heartaches of so many that were met with harm instead of love.

Uncle Frank

Parallel to Frank’s coming out experience is the narrative of Beth. She’s different. She wants an education more than she wants to marry the local boy and have a baby, like the other women in her family. She wants a world that extends beyond the county she was born in. Beth and Frank are naturally drawn together by the mutual understanding that their family doesn’t really see them. But they see each other.

In many ways, Uncle Frank is a coming of age story in two respects. Beth is the obvious and literal take of a young girl going out into the world, coming into herself, and bringing her broadened perspective back to the limited scope of her roots. For Frank, however, he is also coming into himself and bucking the fears of his childhood that held him back. Even as an adult man, Frank has been influenced by the fear of his father and the oppressive circumstance of his growing up. Frank has not been able to come into himself because he is burdened by past trauma and the fear of losing his family. His coming out story is anchored in letting go of the scared child that he has kept cloistered within himself.

Uncle Frank is 100% carried by the charming threesome that is Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, and Peter Macdissi. The performances from these three are infectious, warm, and richly layered. They pass through drama, heartbreak, and unrelenting love in a way that is grounding to the film and consuming to the viewer. In a film that is built entirely on the strength of love and relationships, this cast delivers beautifully.

I’m sure most of us would prefer something light and loving, in this 2020 holiday season, but Uncle Frank offers something real. In a year when families have been hurting and in need of healing, it is heartening to see a story that shows that there is something warm on the other side of heartache. Uncle Frank is one the most beautifully acted, thoughtfully written, and emotionally sobering films I’ve seen this year.

Uncle Frank is available now on Amazon Prime Video.

 

Uncle Frank
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

I’m sure most of us would prefer something light and loving, in this 2020 holiday season, but Uncle Frank offers something real. In a year when families have been hurting and in need of healing, it is heartening to see a story that shows that there is something warm on the other side of heartache. Uncle Frank is one the most beautifully acted, thoughtfully written, and emotionally sobering films I’ve seen this year.