Uncle Frank is available to stream now on Prime Video.
Coming out journeys are different for every individual, with the experience wrapped in the acceptance and inclusion or isolation and oppression of the family and community. Here the barriers to self-actualisation are baked in from a young age as we quickly learn whether we will be accepted or rejected based on the culture surrounding us.
This process has undoubtedly become more comfortable over the past twenty years. However, many still find family and community relationships the most significant challenge they face when coming out. These challenges are even starker within households where toxic masculinity, religious oppression, and sexism are allowed to flow freely. Here, many members of the LGBTQ+ community choose to escape their hometowns for the freedom and anonymity of a big city. Within these themes, Alan Ball’s assured and powerful road trip movie, Uncle Frank, finds a unique and compelling voice.
The film opens in the hot and oppressive summer of South Carolina in 1969 as a family comes together to celebrate the birthday of the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). Mac controls all those around him through a toxic atmosphere of oppression. However, for Beth (Sophia Lillis), her attention is fixed on the isolated but free figure of her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), his free-thinking, liberal, and educated demeanour at odds with the neo-conservative men around him.
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Uncle Frank (2020) is now available to stream on Prime Video.
Frank’s presence is neither welcomed nor accepted by her grandfather, who sneers at her uncle at every opportunity while spouting barbed comments. But for Beth, Frank is engaging, modern and fascinating, her conversations with him enlightening, diverse and intelligent. Frank is an English lecturer in New York, and his brief input into Beth’s life sparks her desire to leave her small conservative town for university.
Four years later, Beth enrols at NYU as an English major and is excited by the prospect of getting to know her Uncle Frank better. However, on deciding to gatecrash one of Frank’s legendary weekend parties with her new boyfriend, Beth finds herself warmly greeted into the apartment by the effervescent Wally (Peter Macdissi). Despite Frank’s initial unwillingness to discuss his love life, Beth quickly puts two and two together as Wally welcomes her into a world of new experiences and people.
Just as Beth’s eyes are opened to the real Uncle Frank and his long-term relationship with Wally, news reaches them of her grandfather’s death, and the trio embark on a road trip South for the wake. However, the truth behind her uncle’s turbulent relationship with his father is far darker than Beth could imagine. As they travel, secrets are aired as Uncle Frank finally lays to rest the ghosts of his past, with his oppressive father now gone.
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Uncle Frank is rooted in the pain and trauma of oppression and hate as Frank’s escape from his family life is unpicked with each mile travelled. Here Paul Bettany offers us a genuinely electrifying, sophisticated and charming performance as the darkness of a past Frank tried to escape comes bubbling to the surface. The road trip we embark on is one of healing, self-forgiveness and honesty, demonstrating that sometimes one person can hold our emotions hostage for our entire lives. But, their passing gives us the final opportunity to set ourselves free of the prison they built around us. Beth and Wally provide emotional assistance to Frank as he slowly unpicks his teenage life and is finally reborn back in the hometown he run away from so many years before.
Just as with American Beauty and Six Feet Under, Alan Ball challenges us to reflect on the building blocks of our memories and their power in forming our life experiences and sense of belonging. While simultaneously unpicking the traditional family unit and the secrets buried under the surface. While Uncle Frank may speak directly to the experiences of gay life in 70s rural America, its themes continue to reflect those of many LGBTQ+ people today – his healing journey, one that many find themselves embarking on as they reach later life.