[Early Review] Uncle Frank (2020)

Director: Alan Ball
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root
Screenplay: Alan Ball
95 mins. Rated R for language, some sexual references and drug use.

On first look, the poster for Uncle Frank didn’t really win me over. It wasn’t until I saw the cast list and realized that it was written and directed by Alan Ball (Towelhead). Now, that got me interested. I’ve been a big fan of Ball’s work in the television field with shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for American Beauty, but I hadn’t heard of Uncle Frank at all until seeing this poster, usually a bad sign. I was hesitant but intrigued as I prepared for this screening (thank you to Amazon for letting me stream the film in advance from my home), but I’m pleased to say that Uncle Frank is one of the best movies of the year.

Told from the perspective of young college-bound Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, It, TV’s I Am Not Okay with This), the film is a recounting of the events of 1973, in which she traveled back home to attend her grandfather’s funeral with her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Frank is heading toward the reunion with trepidation. He’s a homosexual, and he’s been keeping his secret for years. His family doesn’t know, and his deceased father hated him. Frank’s journey is further complicated when he is join by his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, The Losers, TV’s Six Feet Under). As Beth attempts to understand her uncle in this new way, she sees him heading for a confrontation with his past.

I love a good family drama with enough dry wit to keep the tone bubbling, and that’s something that Alan Ball excels with. Uncle Frank is like the best of the family dinner episodes of Six Feet Under, where awkwardness and drama hold hands at the table and force everyone to air their dirty laundry. His writing is witty, his emotional beats pack a punch, and his direction is very character-focused. Ball’s camera is laser-focused on the character interactions and he lets them drive his story, and while that story has been told before, it’s done so here with a sense of joy that these types of stories don’t often get. You can critique the occasional schmaltz of the narrative, but I really needed that, and the catharsis is both interesting and relatable, proving that it isn’t the story you tell, but how you tell it, that matters.

Paul Bettany has always had the ability to disappear in the role by mixing elements of the written character with his own natural charisma, but as Frank, he plays it so well that you forget he’s even acting. It’s hard to even call his work a performance because it’s so real that I couldn’t find the theatricality behind it. Perhaps that’s because he is so well-paired with the overly-theatrical Peter Macdissi as Wally, Frank’s secret partner. The two have such tremendous chemistry, and Macdissi is much less hard-edged than I’ve seen him in other work, that the dramedy mined from their relationship just feels lived-in.

I was also impressed with Sophia Lillis, who burst onto the scene back in 2017 with It and the 2019 sequel. Oftentimes, you wonder if these younger actors have the experience to flourish as they select new projects, but Lillis proved to be capable in commanding the screen with more well-known performers. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with veteran performers all giving solid supporting work, from the always underrated Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Tall Girl), as Frank’s brother Mike, to the sharp-tongued Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, The Kitchen) as Frank’s mother.

Uncle Frank does not reinvent the wheel. This story has been told many times, and yet, under the strong screenwriting hand of Alan Ball, and with his keen attention to character, this story is a lovely and sometimes joyful but always poignant story that deserves being told again. While I wished we got to see more of the journey to the funeral (it sells itself as a road movie but spends a lot less time in transit), I was still entranced from beginning to end. See this movie. It just might be one of my favorites of the year.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

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