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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Uncle Frank ****

Starring: Sophia Lillis, Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale

Director: Alan Ball

Country: USA

From the man behind Six Feet Under and True Blood comes this intense new drama, which goes back to the 1970s, when having a gay member of the family was a hushed up secret.

Beth (Lillis – It, Gretel & Hansel) has grown up in South Carolina loving when her Uncle Frank (Bettany – The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind) visits from New York, who has always been the person who understood her most. She doesn’t understand why her grandfather is so cruel to him, or why her parents (Zahn – Descue Dawn, Sahara - & Greer – Jurassic World, Ant-Man) seem so reluctant to talk about him. When she moves to NYC for college, she meets Wally (Macdissi), who she soon discovers is her uncle’s partner of ten years. It doesn’t take her long to accept Frank for who he is, but when there is a family bereavement, they all head back to their hometown, trying desperately to keep Frank’s secret concealed from the family matriarch (Martindale – The Americans, August: Osage County).

This is a story that most LGBT+ people over the age of forty will recognise. The lying and the deception; secret realities and feeling that you must protect loved ones from the truth. Uncle Frank was forced to leave South Carolina – just as Wally was forced to leave Saudi Arabia – not because he doesn’t love his family, but because he knows the community aren’t ready to accept him for who he is. We see through flashbacks that his father furiously knows his truth and the reality of this is drip-fed throughout the film, explaining Frank’s increasingly erratic behaviour as he is forced to face up to his feelings for his family.

Bettany gives a career-best performance here, oozing with effortless charisma before regressing into a seething ball of neuroses. Sophia Lillis is charming as always, but it’s Peter Macdissi who steals the show, charming and magnetic, gloriously unashamed of his origins but pragmatic about his present. As Frank drinks heavier and heavier, Wally’s appeal that “I will not go through this again” rings all the truer for his affability and usual joy. And though the resplendent Margo Martindale is underused, she’s maintains her usual compelling presence with a steely confidence that makes her warm and terrifying in equal measure.

This period Deep South drama is a nostalgic look backwards, for all its charm and pain together. It’s like August: Osage County but with actually likeable characters. With all its Dixie charm, it’s also not a great advert for the southern states, strongly showing the contrast between the liberal North and the traditional backwaters of The South.

With Ball as both writer and director, Uncle Frank holds a good balance of being both a character piece and a well-paced kitchen sink drama, with all the hall-marks of a master screenwright at its helm. There are narrative tropes aplenty, feeling like an early 00s Miramax awards-magnet, but at its heart is a sleepy beating bourbon-drenched heart, with as much reverence for The South as there is acknowledgement of its problems. It may not be the most inventive film of the year, but it does what it does and it does it very well indeed.



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