Uncle Frank -B-
Rated R, 95 minutes
The affecting, well-acted new dramedy "Uncle Frank" from "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball is a pertinent look at American sensibilities of same-sex relationships, even if its premise - coming of age road trip - is hardly original.
In 1973, when Frank Bledsoe ("The Avengers" Paul Bettany) and his 18-year-old niece Beth ("It's" Sophia Lillis) take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, South Carolina for the family patriarch's funeral, they're unexpectedly joined by Frank's lover Wally (character actor Peter Macdissi, Ball's real-life partner).
The uneven yet compelling "Uncle Frank," directed and written by Ball, is part road trip, part Tennessee Williams-esque family drama that deals with many issues, including coming of age, sexuality and Southern sensibilities about same-sex relationships that would certainly be a hot topic at Sunday dinner following church. Bettany grounds the film well in a pitch-perfect turn as the repressed Frank, who's had to keep his homosexuality hidden for years from his family, in spite of the fact the English professor lives in New York City, far away from his family.
Bettany is joined by Lillis in a strong turn that as equally as memorable or even more so than Bettany. Always drawn to Frank, he's been an inspiration for her to be different but the two become ally's when Beth discovers who he really is. Macdissi does well in an underwritten role as Frank's boyfriend, but Ball's script doesn't give him much to do but act irritated with Frank. The many strong, brief supporting performances include Stephen Root as Frank's overly strict father Daddy Mac, Margo Martindale as his loving mother, and Steve Zahn and Judy Greer as Beth's parents and Frank's brother and sister-in-law.
"Uncle Frank" turns much darker in the second act than its lighter first act, as it explores Frank's past and his many other issues, including addiction and being outed in the worst possible way. While you've likely seen similar in Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and other productions, Bettany really shines in these scenes, making them worthwhile; his final scene with his mama (Martindale is one of my favorites) is a real keeper and will require tissues.
We all have those Uncle Frank's in our family, those that are a little different for whatever reason, but as we know, different is not a bad thing. This is one of the unsurprising but heartfelt messages in the powerful "Uncle Frank," made better by a strong performance from Bettany in the lead. Available on Amazon Prime.