Movie review: Uncle Frank

(image courtesy IMP awards)

There is an undeniable power, an emboldening if you like, to finally completely and irrevocably owning and celebrating who you are.

Nothing can match discarding the petty, snide snark of the peanut gallery, of the bullies and the taunters and the disapprovers and embracing who are you in all your glorious, contrary complexity.

But exhilarating though this inner truthfulness is, it can still leave you imprisoned if, like Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany), the protagonist of 1973-set Uncle Frank, you may have made inner, and some outer peace with yourself but only in a world wholly removed from the one in which you grew up.

For as much time as he can carve out, and it is pretty all the time save for the rare unavoidable trips from from New York City, where he lives with his partner of 10 years (housemate to anyone not in the know) Walid aka Wally (Peter Macdissi), back home to Creekville, South Carolina, Frank is an quietly out and proud professor who has never quite found the perfect woman (but that’s only if his Aunt Butch, played by Lois Smith, is asking.

But then circumstances conspire to send him home unexpectedly, along with his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) with whom he has found some outlier kinship owing to her similarly unorthodox view of the world – unorthodox i that she thinks for herself and doesn’t let others define her, a nascent individualism that Frank helps stoke – and he is forced to face who he is in the context of a place he long bled and emotions he buried where he thought they could never be found.

The igniting moment for this revelatory trip home is the death of his father Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) with whom Frank has had a traumatically difficult relationship ever since he was discovered near naked as a sixteen-year-old with his high school boyfriend Sam (Michael Perez), and while Frank is clearly thrown by the news, it’s not until he is back in Creekville, accompanied without his knowledge by a devoted and concerned Wally, that he comes face-to-face with the way in which the rift with his father has coloured his entire life.

Written by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) from semi-autobiographical elements, Uncle Frank is an immensely moving film that explores how we never truly leave the past behind and how even in a present seemingly shorn and untouched by the trauma of youthful mistakes, we can still find ourselves right back where the pain first begin.

Bettany delivers a powerfully nuanced performance as Frank, with pain, fear, loss and then quiet joy wrapped across his face as he journeys through the events of 30 years earlier when a fearful decision made by him following his father’s discovery causes him to act in a way that has calamitous results.

It’s inevitable in a sense that a funeral, particularly that of a parent, would dredge up the painful relics of the past; they are, by their very nature, turmoil-inducing events that pay little heed to the nice neat walls that we erect to keep past pain at bay.

The thing is that those walls, sturdy though they may seem, always leak and buckle, corrupted by the fact that try as we might to push past trauma away, emotions cannot be contained.

Not really; Frank may think he has successfully corralled his Creekville self and the attendant sadness and loss forever attached to him from his urbane, party-throwing, cool friends professorial NYC self but the the truth is, that’s never really possible, something that becomes readily apparent as his father’s funeral causes all the barriers to fall and truths to be desperately, painfully confronted.

There are two beating hearts at the centre of Uncle Frank‘s powerful narrative.

The first is Frank’s relationship with Beth who, as a new university student and someone trying to carve out a life distinct from that of her parents Mike and Kitty (Steve Zahn and Judy Greer), is as much an outlier from the family as Frank is, unable to swim with the conservative currents that define the Bledsoe for better or worse (mostly the latter, sadly thanks to Daddy Mac’s dominance of his family).

Lillis and Bettany as near perfect as curious niece and protective uncle, and while the first part of Uncle Frank sees the latter as the protector and the rescuer, it is the second half of the film, when Beth is coming into herself, where the tables are turned and Beth, along with Wally who exhibits aching, devoted love so strong it will grip your heart with its power and effect especially in the cemetery scene, comes to Frank’s aid.

Uncle Frank is a transformative gem.

It dares to challenge us to consider whether we have truly owned who we intrinsically are if much of ourselves remains hidden from people who matter so deeply to us, but it is also sensitive and considered enough to understand that being fully honest is not always easy, and can be imprisoningly difficult, and that the road to true liberation may be more powerful and delayed that we could ever imagine.

While the trailer might suggest a coming-of-age film where the black sheep uncle helps the black sheep niece to find her authentic sense of self and her true voice, all of which happens in some form, Uncle Frank is for the most part, how one man finally comes to grips with his past, and how that transforms his present.

Beth is an undeniable part of this significant journey, one that takes places in a world still inimically opposed to honesty about unconventional sexuality, despite the liberating and lingering effects of the 1960s, and together she and Frank discover how empowering it can be to tell the world to take a hike and chart your own course.

But this is ultimately Uncle Frank’s story, one in which long-repressed sadness and crushing pain finally find their voice and one inwardly-broken man finds himself being put beautifully back together again in a family who may yet surprise him (the scene with his Mammaw, played by Margo Martindale, lives this out in a way that will utterly consume you with the power of emotions unlocked).

It is near impossible to watch this perfectly told, emotionally resonant and painfully, beautifully, heartstoppingly truthful and ultimately hopeful film without being affected in ways too numerous and considerable to mention – Uncle Frank celebrates personal authenticity, bravery of self and the desperate need we all have for authentic to family, biological and found, all while charting one man’s course from the dark into a light he didn’t even know was possible and which changes everything in ways that no one, and we mean no one, will ever be the same again.

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