When American Beauty was first released, Alan Ball was rightly hailed as an exciting new voice in film. Since then, he’s largely focused on the small screen, creating Six Feet Under and True Blood. On the big screen, he’s really only had his directorial debut, Towelhead, to follow up American Beauty with. Now, Ball has made his sophomore feature with Uncle Frank, a flawed yet very engaging drama. In another time, this would have been a surefire Oscar player. Now, it’s mostly just a quality independent flick, a throwback to another era of filmmaking. Playing at Film Fest 919, it’s an indie that’s well worth your time when it comes out in November.
Uncle Frank manages to find some humor in an ultimately rather tragic tale. A lot of the beats in Ball’s story here are ones we’ve seen before, but they’re just slightly askew, making the experience more unique. Plus, there’s some really impeccable acting here, led by Paul Bettany in his finest role to date. The acting and warmth on display overcome any narrative missteps or sense that we’ve seen this all played out before. It’s not perfect, but by the end, you’ll undoubtedly be moved.
The Bledsoe family is a tight-knit clan, led by a close-minded patriarch in Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). They all seem to get along, with the exception of Daddy Mac and Frank (Bettany), his eldest son. While the rest of the family either doesn’t know or pretends when it comes to Frank’s sexual orientation, his father was well aware and never accepted it. A confrontation drove him from home once upon a time, and he never expected to return. Now in 1973, he’s visited by his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), who has moved to New York to attend college. Shortly, however, h’es about to be pulled back from his life in as a professor in New York City, due to Daddy Mac’s death.
Traveling home for the funeral with Beth and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), Frank drinks, reflects back on his confrontation with his father, and worries about his family. After all, younger brother Mike (Steve Zahn) and his wife Kitty (Judy Greer), who are Beth’s parents, aren’t exactly the most enlightened of people. But, he does miss his mother (Margo Martindale), so the prodigal son does return. There, he’s surprised not just by his family, but by one last message from Daddy Mac.
The acting is really top notch here. Paul Bettany may be best in show, but everyone more than pulls their weight. Bettany and Sophia Lillis have the largest roles, making the most of fleshed out characters, but the supporting cast is terrific. Character actresses like Judy Greer and Margo Martindale, not to mention Lois Smith, provide more than capable support, while Stephen Root is explosive and volatile. Providing key support is also Peter Macdissi, whose character and presents is one of the reasons why Uncle Frank works so well.
Alan Ball is sometimes his own worst enemy here. The sillier moments in Uncle Frank are at odds with the more melodramatic ones. American Beauty handled this better, but Ball is also stronger as a writer than a director, so that difference is apparent here. Notably, the flashbacks to Frank’s younger days crop up too much, killing momentum. Ball is on point with all of the emotional cues, as well as a moving climax, so the good definitely outweighs the bad. There’s just the sense of something great struggling to get out here. Luckily, the strong acting also winds up saving the day.
Uncle Frank has some hiccups along the way, but it’s overall an emotional and satisfying drama, one that ultimately makes you smile. Film Fest 919, taking place down in North Carolina, is a perfect place to showcase this flick, as it calls out for understanding between those who are different. Ball doesn’t always make his message as smooth as it can be, but it winds up being an effective one, all the same.