Uncle Frank

Partially inspired by Writer/Director Alan Ball’s own family history, ‘Uncle Frank’ is a coming out story. 

Frank comes from a fairly large Southern family; having removed himself from it to study and then live and work in New York, he only returns to South Carolina for big family events where he’s met with brooding hostility from his father and with fascination from his niece Beth.  This story is told mostly from Beth’s perspective as she takes a similar path to her uncle, not feeling like she quite fits in at home and encouraged by Frank, follows him to New York to study.

Frank is in his 40’s and over the decades has separated his life into compartments, he’s got his non-sexual/heterosexual family part, his NYC professional part then his friends & lover part.  All kept strictly apart, and for good reason; until relatively recently, this is something everyone in the LGBTQ+ had to do in order to survive and have a halfway decent life.

However, Beth is the catalyst that throws chaos into that order moving from his family life into his NYC life, and then into his personal life dragging aspects from one through everything else.  A family event that happens back home goes on to further blur the lines of his separate lives when Frank, his lover, and Beth have to undertake a car journey from New York back to South Carolina.  It’s a literal and metaphorical journey with the destination being the family crucible.

This feels like a necessary catharsis for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community.  Sadly, as with much LGBTQ+ film and television, there is a lot of sadness and tragedy, it being set mainly in the early 1970’s in the American South adding its own dimension to that. However, there’s also a lot of humour, much joy and a great deal of love.

I felt that it said all the right things to its audience, people need reminding that it wasn’t very long ago that homophobia was socially and legally acceptable in every part of society.  It’s less the case now, but it’s still pretty bad and in many places it’s as bad as it can be and I think people sometimes get comfortable and complacent.   This story begins within my own lifetime and I know prejudice like this exists now in many places but it’s still shocking and sobering to see just how things were for many people.  Homophobia is a fairly unique prejudice in that it gives the subject the option of hiding; hiding what makes them different or living their genuine life openly and freely; this could sound like a blessing, but it’s always a curse.

I’m writing this having watched episode 3 of ‘It’s a Sin’ by Russell T. Davies. Set from 1981 to 1991, it tells the story of a group of friends, mainly gay, living in London during the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic.  It’s interesting to see ‘Uncle Frank’ in the context of ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘The Normal Heart’ where Frank has to deal with intolerance, shame, and illegality pre the era where all that has a deadly disease thrown all over the top of it to make each of those components magnitudes worse.  It’s like you know there’s a monster coming that’s going to kills millions of people and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

The cast of this movie is superb.  There’s a bit of a debate lately as to whether straight actors should be playing gay characters and I understand the concern but sometimes it just depends on whether the actor can do the role justice.  I thought Paul Bettany, as Frank, was exceptionally good in this, I believed in him.  Sophia Lillis, as Beth, was equally as good and remarkably self-assured given her relative inexperience to the rest of the cast, people like Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Stephen Root.  The other outstanding performance here was that of Margo Martindale as Franks’ Mammaw.  I’m growing to really love Margo Martindale, having seen her play such great roles in ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘Mrs America’, she’s never in things quite enough, I always want to see more.

StoryScreenplay by Alan Ball
CastPaul Bettany, as Frank Bledsoe
Sophia Lillis, as Beth Bledsoe
Peter Macdissi, as Walid ‘Wally’ Nadeem
Steve Zahn, as Mike Bledsoe
Judy Greer, as Kitty Bledsoe
Margo Martindale, as Mammaw
Stephen Root, as Daddy Mac
DirectorAlan Ball
Running Time95 mins