Paul Bettany as Frank Bledsoe
Cole Doman as young Frank Bledsoe
Sophia Lillis as Beth Bledsoe
Peter Macdissi as Walid “Wally” Nadeem
Steve Zahn as Mike Bledsoe
Judy Greer as Kitty Bledsoe
Margo Martindale as Mammaw Bledsoe
Stephen Root as Daddy Mac
Lois Smith as Aunt Butch
Written and Directed by Alan Ball
Uncle Frank Review:
The LGBTQ+ genre has seen a wide range and frequency of films for decades, but between Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, Olivia Peace’s Tahara and Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season, this year has seen some of the greatest and most unique representative stories on screen and though Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank may tread familiar roads in its various genres, it joins the group in simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming fashion and features career-best turns from its central trio.
In 1973, teenaged Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) leaves her rural Southern hometown to study at New York University where her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a revered literature professor. She soon discovers that Frank is gay, and living with his longtime partner Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi) — an arrangement that he has kept secret for years. After the sudden death of Frank’s father — Beth’s grandfather — Frank is forced to reluctantly return home for the funeral with Beth in tow, and to finally face a long-buried trauma that he has spent his entire adult life running away from.
Ball’s decision to put the still-learning Beth at the center of the story and as the audience’s anchor for the events that transpire is a truly brilliant avenue as it not only allows the viewer to feel compelled by her own journey, but also treat every character with a blank-slate mentality and then judge them based on their actions surrounding the titular character. As we first meet the various family members of the Bledsoe kin, we feel vague connections to each and can somewhat pick up on their behaviors and personalities, but as Beth builds her connection with outcast Frank, the lens shifts and we get an idea of the resentment and negativity hiding in a few of their hearts, namely in family patriarch Daddy Mac.
This may feel par for the course for some viewers, a family shunning the one gay member in the family, despite most not even being aware of his sexuality and living situation with partner Wally, but the fact is there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a number of moments throughout the film in which one could look at it and point to similar genre fare in the past, but it’s this embrace of the various tropes that makes the film so enjoyable and so compelling to watch from start to finish. One of the best subversions of expectations was letting much of the road trip focus on building the relationship between Wally and Beth, as the opening of the film takes so much time highlighting Beth’s fascination with her uncle that when we get to see her branch out and learn a lot about Frank from his partner, the story becomes far more compelling than what was initially being established.
One of the key reasons the road trip nature of the story works so well stems from the brilliant chemistry and awards-worthy performances turned in from its three leads, each of whom deliver equally-powerful turns in their roles. Since her breakout performance in the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It, Lillis has remained consistently powerful in each subsequent project, but Uncle Frank sees her absolutely shining and proving that if she doesn’t take home a trophy from the Golden Globe or Oscars ceremonies sometime in the next five years, it will be disappointing.
Uncle Frank might occasionally cover familiar territory, but thanks to some truly emotional moments — on both sides of the scale — powerful performances from its cast and an ever-timely exploration of its themes, it proves to be another beautiful, moving and wonderful LGBTQ+ tale that should be viewed and loved by all.