Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank has probably my favourite line of dialogue in any 2020 movie: “My blowjobs are like poetry.” That it’s delivered by a young male freshman addressing Paul Bettany’s Frank, an English University professor, leads to an even more delicious retort: “How? In what way is a blowjob like poetry, Bruce? Does it rhyme? Does it meter? Does it employ aesthetic qualities in addition to or instead of its notion of semantic content?” The exchange is Uncle Frank and its titular character at its wittiest, capturing the literate world Frank has built for himself in a post-Stonewall New York City, away from his family back in rural South Carolina. If the rest of the film cannot live up to that exchange, it is admittedly by design.
Ball’s film, as its title suggests, is narrated not by its eponymous character but by his niece, Beth (It’s Sophia Lillis). She’s the one who first introduces us to Bettany’s Frank as the outlier in his family. While those around him yell things like “I’ll slap you so hard your clothes will go out of style” and “I’ll whip you both with my hand-saw!” it was Frank who, when visiting his folks, would spend much of his days nose in a book: “He was the only adult who looked at me in the eye,” she says. When he’s tasked to return to attend his father’s funeral, with Beth—now a college student in New York—in tow, Frank is forced to reckon with a life he thought he’d left behind. When his partner Walid, aka “Wally” (Ball’s partner, Peter Macdissi) insists on tagging along, he inadvertently kicks off a coming out story that doubles as a coming of age one.
It’s that latter part which makes Uncle Frank feel rather quaint. Why must this, at times poignant, portrait of a gay man wrestling with his sexuality and the tortured homophobic family home he’d willed into oblivion need—as a frame—the story of a young girl coming into her own? After all, the film is most probing when it tackles Frank’s inner demons and pits them against the openly hostile home his bigoted father nurtured. To see him wanting closure with someone who had so wounded him and whom he now cannot escape is a thrilling proposition, a way to bring out the nuance of sacrifices men like Frank made in that blinkered moment following Stonewall when sexual liberation felt both attainable and restricted. Frank’s life in New York City with Wally is like a walled-off utopia that he’d kept from his family lest it crash into what he’d left behind—and the terrible, shameful tragedy he hoped to escape.
As Ball’s flashbacks flesh out Frank’s teenage years (shot in sun-dappled imagery, like hazily remembered memories), the more you come to understand why he’s so guarded. There’s a complexity to his characterization that comes to a head in a reading of a will that, even in its histrionics, feels earned.
To watch Bettany slowly unravel is one of the joys of Uncle Frank. It’s what makes the framing and more slapdash comedy of errors around him feel all the more dispiriting. If one were to be unkind, one would say that the film doesn’t ever know whether it wants to be a heightened melodrama or a broad family comedy. And while at times, there are moments when such disparate tones come together and create quite tender scenes (as when Wally finally meets Frank’s mother or when Frank’s Aunt all but tells him he’s going to hell) at others the pull between those different tenors makes it feel rather disjointed.
At times too broad and at others too maudlin—which is to say, quintessentially Alan Ball—Uncle Frank is a welcome twist on the coming out film, elevated by an intimate central performance in search of a more assured film around him.
Uncle Frank is being released on 25 November 2020 by Amazon Studios.