Uncle Frank – Personal freedom versus family oppression in 70s South Carolina

7 mins read

Uncle Frank is available on Amazon Prime from 25th November 2020

The coming out journey is different for every individual; their experience often wrapped in the boundaries and social ‘norms’ of family, community and society. The limits of visibility, acceptance and confidence established from a young age and sealed within early teenage experimentation. And while this process has undoubtedly become more comfortable over the past twenty years, many still find family relationships the biggest challenge. Especially within households where toxic masculinity, religious oppression and sexism are allowed to flow freely through family life. However, for older members of the LGBTQ community, these challenges were often starker. With many escaping the oppression of home within cities where the constraints of the family could be managed. Their lives a mix of personal freedom and family lies; ultimately creating a split life experience. And it is here where Alan Ball’s latest film Uncle Frank finds its voice.

The film opens in the heat of a South Carolina summer in 1969 as a family comes together to celebrate the birthday of the family patriarch and grandfather ‘Daddy Mac’ (Stephen Root). His control of those around him seeping through every layer of family life, creating a toxic atmosphere of anger and oppression. However, for young Beth (Sophia Lillis), attention is fixed on the singular and free figure of her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). His free-thinking, liberal, and educated demeanour jarring with the neo-conservative men around him. His presence neither welcomed nor loved by her grandfather, who does nothing but sneer at her uncle. But despite this, Beth finds Frank both engaging and modern. Their conversations enlightening, diverse and fresh. His role as an English lecturer in New York inspiring her to aim beyond the boundaries of her small conservative town.

Therefore when Beth enrols at NYU as an English major four years later, the opportunity to get to know her Uncle Frank comes into view. However, not all is as it once seemed, as Beth gatecrashes one of Franks weekend parties with her new boyfriend. Where a larger than life man called Wally invites her in with hugs and excitement; until he realises, Frank is not aware of her presence. For Beth, reality quickly dawns that her Uncle Frank and Wally are, in fact, partners; his New York life a world away from the restrictions of home.

Just as Beth’s eyes are opened to the real Uncle Frank and his long term relationship with Wally, news reaches them of the death of her grandfather. With both her and her uncle embarking on a road trip back to South Carolina. The truth behind her Uncle’s turbulent relationship with his father bubbling to the surface. In a story wrapped within a teenage tragedy that continues to haunt Uncle Frank’s life.

The journey that ensues is both heartwarming, engaging and challenging, as the reasons for Frank’s escape from family life become clear. With Paul Bettany giving us a genuinely electrifying, sophisticated and charming performance as Frank. Alongside a beautifully soft yet confident performance from Sophia Lillis as Beth. While his partner Wally played by the effervescent Peter Macdissi reflects the complexity of culture, homophobia and unconditional love born from a secret relationship. However, despite a fascinating backstory, Wally remains under-developed in a narrative that centres on Frank. And while understandable, this also creates a missed opportunity for further depth.

Equally, there are times in the final act where simplicity and a need for conclusion override the broader themes of identity, personal trauma and belonging built throughout the first half. The ending desperate to ensure the viewer walks away upbeat and positive. In turn, all but rejecting some of the more challenging realities of family separation, lies and oppression. However, despite these flaws, the performances at the heart of Uncle Frank ensure the film remains both engaging, heartfelt and beautiful. While the screenplay and direction from Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under and True Blood) maintain the emotional intelligence of his award-winning work. Even if at times needing more time, scope and depth to elevate Uncle Frank into the realms of award-winning LGBTQ drama.

However, where Uncle Frank excels is within its ability to reflect personal freedom versus social restriction. The reality of many LGBTQ people’s split existence embodied within Frank. The publicly accepted and repressed image of conformity uncomfortably co-existing with a personal life of freedom and liberation. The pressures to maintain both ultimately leading to the destructive use of alcohol and drugs. These are themes that continue to surround the experience of LGBTQ people today; sadly not yet buried in our collective past. And while Uncle Frank may explore these pertinent issues through the lens of 70s American life. These problems continue to speak loudly to modern generations.

This year has proved to be yet another strong year in LGBTQ film, despite the pandemic surrounding us. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, And Then We Danced and Moffie all offering award-winning performances and unique journeys. And while Uncle Frank may not quite reach the heights of the films above, it does continue to build on a strong year in LGBTQ cinema. With performances and direction that easily earn our essential recommendation. 

Director: Alan Ball

Cast: Paul BettanySophia LillisPeter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root

Sophia Lillis also appears in IT Chapter One and Chapter Two

Paul Bettany also appears in Comic Book Movies: The Essential Collection

Steve Zahn also appears in Lean on Pete

Margo Martindale also appears in Instant Family

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