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Review: 'Uncle Frank' a Powerful, Charming Period Drama

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Nov 24, 2020
Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, and Sophia Lillis in 'Uncle Frank'
Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, and Sophia Lillis in 'Uncle Frank'  

Since he won an Academy Award for writing "American Beauty" in 1999,  openly gay writer/director/producer Alan Ball has been focusing on creating new work for television. His groundbreaking series, such as "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood," swept up Golden Globes and won Ball a loyal following.

Now he is back on the big screen with an autobiographically-based story that he wrote, directed, and produced. Set in 1973, "Uncle Frank" is the tale of a closeted college professor (Paul Bettany) who is expected to go home to his conservative Southern family for the funeral of his father, whom he despised.

Since he left to live in New York many years ago, the only family member who has made any effort to keep in touch is his very naive, 18-year-old niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), who is now a student in the city. Now that she has discovered the secret of her uncle's sexuality and met his long term live-in boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi), the pair become very close. In fact, it is she who persuades him that he has no option other than to go to the funeral, and she insists on accompanying him on the long drive home.

Frank refuses to allow Wally to join them to be his support and finally get to meet the family, but Wally decides to go anyway and follows them discreetly in another car.  

In a series of flashbacks, we learn why Frank and his father had fallen out, and why the incident had not only left an indelible mark on Frank, but also been the root cause of his unhappiness ever since.

Back in the family home, Frank has to deal with younger brother, Mike (Steve Zahn), who not only insists on taking over as the patriarch but also adopts some of his father's bullying tactics. His mother (the always wonderful Margo Martindale) plays the supportive Southern matriarch who is always completely deferential to her husband, but she will show herself to be a much more loving mother before the drama plays out.

Uncle Frank is a heart-touching, old-fashioned coming out story that gay men of a certain age will relate to, though it may stir up uncomfortable memories of their own. However, not all of our stories ended up with the happy ending that Frank eventually, and deservedly, gets. 

Ball weaves a few twists and turns to the plot, some of which work better than others. He does ensure that we are engaged right to the final credits, and it's all helped with a finely-nuanced performance by Bettany in the title role.

Even if this film does not add to Ball's large collection of awards, it is good to see him back on on the big screen with such a rare mature queer drama like this.

"Uncle Frank" premieres on Amazon Prime Video Nov. 25.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.

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