UNCLE FRANK: A Bit Rushed, But Incredibly Sweet

We have been getting some incredible stories centering on gay and lesbian romances. Most of them are some of my favorite films this decade – Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Carol, and Moonlight are easily on that list.

Uncle Frank is a more mainstream, entertaining entry to this type of story. It is essentially a road trip movie involving the titular Frank (Paul Bettany), a closeted gay man during the 1970s, as he travels from Manhattan to Creekville, South Carolina for the family funeral. Along the ride, we have Frank’s 18-year old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) and his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).

You might be imagining the film as Green Book but with gay people. On the surface, it might look like it; both films have their characters driving from New York to the Deep South, staying in motels along the way. Fans of the 2018 Best Picture winner will likely make that connection with good intentions. Personally, despite having some issues with Uncle Frank’s storytelling and narrative choices, I think this is a far more rewatchable road trip movie, thanks to some delightful performances and fewer problematic decisions being made on a conceptual level.

Also, with writer/director Alan Ball being a gay man himself, Uncle Frank is honest with its subject matter; all written from a warm, sentimental place.

A Rushed Beginning and End

Without a doubt, the weakest parts of Uncle Frank fall under the first and the last fifteen minutes – both involve iffy narrative tropes and are, quite simply, too rushed.

UNCLE FRANK: A Bit Rushed, But Incredibly Sweet
source: Amazon Studios

As the film opens, we get a quick understanding of where Beth comes from; she’s surrounded by a massive family, full of ultra-conservatives and two welcoming performances by Judy Greer and Steve Zahn as Beth’s parents. The problem, which is further elevated in the third act, is you won’t remember who’s who. Wait, is that Beth’s sister? No? Aunt? Aunt, right? Okay. So, Lois Smith is the grandma then, or is she just an older aunt? Ah, forget it. None of it matters, and the film doesn’t really hide that sentiment to the audience.

The film only cares about letting us know that Uncle Frank is the most important member of the family to Beth. How do I know that? Because there’s voiceover narration about it from Lillis. It’s a cliché, if not lazy storytelling device – an early reveal of what the film’s priorities are. During this time, Beth moves to NYU, reunites with Frank, and due to some awkward circumstances, Frank finally comes out to Beth.

Everything in the Middle is Fantastic

Once Beth realizes and quickly accepts the truth about Frank, we are also introduced to Wally, and the film becomes remarkably better in every single way.

Every reason why I would recommend Uncle Frank has to do with Bettany and Macdissi. The two share an unbelievably sweet and charming chemistry together. Macdissi, especially, carries so much of the film on his shoulders. Wally brings such an infectious energy to the road trip, and the script still manages to give him solid moments of dramatic heft. He is open, candid, accepting, and very funny. All of his lines and decisions come from a deep love for his partner. Once the driving starts, Lillis is essentially sidelined for the rest of the film and acts as a vessel for the audience to observe this couple.

UNCLE FRANK: A Bit Rushed, But Incredibly Sweet
source: Amazon Studios

But the second act is really a chance for Bettany to display a wide range of emotions, largely driven by Frank’s self-hate and self-imposed guilt. He encourages Beth to be the person she wants to be, but it’s clear he doesn’t follow his own advice, and tensions only escalate when Frank is confronted with his past. Though there’s something to be said about Lillis’ narration conflicting with Bettany’s flashbacks, the latter does an excellent job at revealing story beats and providing heavy context to Bettany’s performance.

However, as I said before, the film becomes too rushed in its final act, as it finds quick ways to wrap up every one of its ideas to the point where it almost weaves into melodrama.

Uncle Frank: Worth the Trip for the Characters Alone

On paper, Uncle Frank is a very conventional drama where something topical in the 1970s is still relevant today. It’s not very subtle either. From a line of encouragement for Frank to come out being “it’s 1973” to the crudest will reading scene in recent memory, there are places where the film takes the easy route.

That being said, I loved spending every second with Frank, Wally, and Beth. It may not take too many surprising turns, but you enjoy the journey because of the people you’re with. The chemistry and charisma are undeniable here, and I’m more than happy to visit it again with my family.

Did you see Uncle Frank? What did you think of the film? Share below!

Amazon Studios will release Uncle Frank on Prime Video on November 25th, 2020.

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