Review by Gillian Doyle
The most frustrating moment in Uncle Frank (Alan Ball, 2020) occurs in the opening scene, when we get our first interaction between the title character (Paul Bettany) and his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis). Instead of showing us how and why they connect, Beth’s love for her uncle is told to us in voice-over as we resentfully strain to hear the snippets of dialogue we should have been focusing on. I had been looking forward to the film, and such a strange choice this early on left me apprehensive for what would come next. I needn’t have worried. The film quickly makes clear the impact Frank has on his niece’s life, and the introduction of his partner, Wally (Paul Macdissi), sets the stage for a thoroughly engaging narrative.
Finally living in the same city as the only member of her family who really sees her, Beth crashes a party at her uncle’s apartment and learns that he is gay. Despite her Southern upbringing and the film’s 1970s setting, Beth accepts him quickly, but he knows the rest of his family will not be as understanding. And that’s not the only secret he’s been keeping.
Writer-director Ball could have rendered Wally a loveable prop in a movie like this, but he is actually one of its biggest assets. It is clear how much he loves his partner’s niece without ever meeting her, and his chemistry with Frank is tangible. Watching the trio confront the issues arising from the death of the family patriarch makes for a thoroughly compelling story about courage, regret, addiction, and the complexity of love.
Beth’s mother, Kitty (Judy Greer), provides welcome comic relief in a film that can be difficult to watch, and though I would have liked to have spent more time with some of Frank’s family members, I appreciated the varied reactions to a relative coming out, acknowledging the visibility of gay men in pre-AIDs crisis America. Again the final scene relies on Beth’s voice-over narration rather than letting us observe and draw out our own conclusions, though this is less grating the second time round. Overall, the film is a winner, competently balancing humour and drama without compromising either.