When a member of the Bledsoe family dies, Frank (Paul Bettany) and his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) travel back home to Creekville, South Carolina where they’re joined unexpectedly by Frank’s secret gay lover, Walid (Peter Macdissi).
Uncle Frank is a beloved character and not like any of his relatives. He’s a literature professor at a university in New York and lives a humble yet secret life. That secret being that he’s actually gay. Back in 1973 where the film is set, homosexuality was very much frowned upon, and that was also the case within the Bledsoe household, in particular Frank’s father Mac (Stephen Root).
Uncle Frank is beautifully written and directed by Alan Ball. The premise of the story is loosely based on Ball’s father, the details of how much is however, unknown. It’s rather joyous seeing Frank and Beth’s unique relationship unfold throughout the film, and to see how that bond is unbreakable, no matter what happens. She stays with him and protects him through all the uncertainty that follows during and after the funeral. Frank feels more like a father than an uncle to Beth, as they seem to have a much better connection with each other than she does with her own father, Frank’s younger brother Mike (Steve Zahn). The cast for this film is great with the likes of Judy Greer and Margo Martindale making up the supporting roles.
There are two sections of this film, one I would call pre-phone call and the other, post-phone call. Life seems to be running smoothly for Frank pre-phone call. He has his (secret) life in New York with his partner of 10-years Walid, his job at the university, his wonderful relationship with his niece and he knows where he stands when it comes to his father, which is at the bottom of the let’s be honest – shit pile. He smiles and plays the devoted son, but when he gets back to New York (and to Walid), he can be himself again. He doesn’t have to fake it anymore. He is safe in his little apartment, just the two of them and away from his judgemental and cold-hearted father.
When Beth unexpectedly visits one night with her ‘boyfriend’ Bruce (Colton Ryan), who turns out to be a bit of a loser and not all that necessary to the film, Frank is surprised but delighted to see her. To see kindness and familiarity. But she is none the wiser when it comes to the truth of Walid and Frank’s relationship – Walid telling her when he opens the door to her that he’s Frank’s ‘room mate’. The scene where Frank realises he can tell her just who he is, is absolutely breathtaking. Beth, unlike her family, will take it perfectly. He comes out to her in the bathroom whilst she is throwing up from too much alcohol. It probably wasn’t what he had in mind when he pictured coming out to her for the first time, but, you can sense the relief when he finally lets go nonetheless. Her response the next day being “I’ve never known anybody who was gay before”, just goes to show how uncommon it appeared back then, or how people were forced to hide their true selves.
From the moment the phone rang and he gets told the news of his father’s death, everything just goes downhill and crumble around him, even his sobriety. The film contains a lot of intimate, raw and honest conversations that are very poignant and need to be heard. These are conversations people still fear having to this day, even in the 21st century where in many countries being gay is a crime.
The standouts of the film are Frank, Beth and Walid. Those three are absolutely perfect for these roles and they work together beautifully, and their chemistry is evident. When they are together, they fit like a glove, whether that be as a threesome or paired off, but kudos to Peter Macdissi. His performance radiates genuine warmth and his smile lights up the screen. There is an air of grace about him even when having a meltdown over Frank’s sobriety (or lack of).
The visuals are stunning, and the cinematography gives off an authentic touch, making you feel at home and ‘familiar’, like you’re actually in America in the 70s. On the whole the film leaves a lasting memory and cannot be faulted. It does, however, shock you when certain dialogue is used, such as “perversion”, “sickness” and “sinful” when describing homosexuality. You forget that those were real words used, and while as a society in general we are more ‘open’, these words are still being said.
Uncle Frank is an epic journey of self discovery, love and acceptance. A thoroughly heartwarming, joyful yet deeply emotional film.