Alan Ball is at his best when he is exploring the idiosyncrasies of the American family — whether the suburbia of his Oscar-winning “American Beauty” or his Emmy-winning fare, like “True Blood” and “Six Feet Under.” Now, Ball writes and directs his most intimate film yet, the new Amazon Prime drama “Uncle Frank.”
Set in 1973, the film follows the titular Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) and his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) as they return to South Carolina upon the news that their family patriarch has died. Estranged and hiding his long-term relationship with his partner (Peter Macdissi), Frank must come home and confront the pain and trauma he has so desperately tried to avoid.
The cast assembled for “Uncle Frank” is top-to-bottom incredible. Stephen Root is the angry, homophobic father; Margo Martindale the newly widowed mother; and while the likes of Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and June Sqibb feel wasted in limited screentime, their screen presence is an absolute delight. Lillis, the young star of “Sharp Objects” and “It,” is once again excellent here as a young woman looking to discover herself and her elusive uncle. Lillis and Bettany are an excellent pair and a joy to watch. Paul Bettany, who for decades has been one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, turns in an incredible performance as Frank: a man who is full of love, but also fragile in his longing for acceptance. Bettany’s work here is worthy of any “Best of” consideration, and one can only hope that Bettany’s transformative performance doesn’t get lost. With Macdissi giving an excellent turn as his partner, Wally, the two actors explore a loving, tender relationship with a natural chemistry that stands as the foundation of the film.
I opened my review stating that Ball is at his best when exploring family dynamics — that is true. “Uncle Frank” is Ball’s most intimate work, and when he allows his audience to explore these personal relationships in quiet, mundane moments—the film is wonderful. But like many of his projects, “Uncle Frank” relies on melodrama too heavily, weakening the story. I wanted more time with these characters — to flesh them out and understand their motivations; instead, we get a story that wraps up too neatly and ends too abruptly.
But I didn’t leave “Uncle Frank” thinking about its flaws. I left thinking about how much happier and better off we would all be if we had an Uncle Frank — someone to teach us to be ourselves and nurture our creativity. And I thought of the Uncle Franks of the world who didn’t have loving nieces and partners to love them as they deserved. That is the power of Bettany’s performance, and of the film, and for that reason, I urge you to watch it.
Featured photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.