One must wonder how it could possibly have taken 13 years for Alan Ball to slip back into the director’s chair, at least on the film’s side. Of course, Six Feet Under, True Blood, and the lesser received Here and Now kept him busy on the small screen. His most recent story is a chance to get deeper, more personal, speak closer to his childhood from the bright lights of New York, to his quiet, reserved, consequential roots of the deep south. Uncle Frank certainly is that story, but only Mr. Ball can make it loaded with delightful literary-esque dialogue and equal doses of heartbreak and healing.
Paul Bettany portrays Frank Bledsoe, a charismatic English teacher based out of Manhattan in the mid-70s, but who could never shake off his family ties back home in the stillness of Creekville, South Carolina. In the city, he is diligent at his job, lively at home with his roommate and boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi). With his clan, he’s distant and disconnected, because of years of shame and disappointment. His young niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), who had just recently moved to the isle for her own collegiate education with horizons opened and romance blooming with new beau Bruce (Colton Ryan), is the next relative to discover her uncle is gay. Just as they begin to connect on a deeper level, the news comes down that Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) has passed on.
The loyal son he is, he and Beth are asked back home for the funeral, with Wally tagging along in the car behind them. With that comes a thematically anticipated confrontation of long-suppressed trauma, as much of Ball’s story flashes back to his most fervent point of self-discovery. An innocent friendship with a local guy turned sour by Mac catching wind and baring his claws. He’s the kind of dad who won’t settle for anything short of iron rule. Mr. Root channels that cold-bloodedness with dark precision, while the rest of his brood look on, Lillis the most wide-eyed and clueless to what’s most occurring.
Those between her, Frank and Wally are somewhat indifferent amid their mourning. Older brother Mike (Steve Zahn) their loyal Mammaw (Margo Martindale), and the easily peeved Aunt Butch (a delightful Lois Smith) are lost in their own grief, happy to see their long-gone comrade, aware of past history without commenting on it. Subtleties abound in refreshing Frank’s memory: discriminating while attempting to narrowly avoid paying for an unnecessary second hotel room among many a painful example of Frank’s past life, the frustration and shame manifesting into panicked drinking and marijuana use.
Ball refuses to take this road trip lightly, lumping down the uncertain doom underlying in Frank’s psyche, to Beth’s life progress, and to Wally’s supposedly uncalmable family issues back home, having to hold down the queasiness of lying to their faces over the phone. Lillis and Macdissi are supportive to no end, complicated in their own ways. But Bettany is most prone to tap into a deep well of irritability when provoked, without having to be asked. It’s just there, the pride and discomfort balanced like it were gut instinct. His is a natural response to a deep-seated identity crisis; any other actor in the same role would’ve lost his focus midway.
Alan does have to nudge him a little to veer closer into that territory of unbridled catharsis, but it’s never a constant. Paul’s in complete control, granting him a possible career-high performance that may be impossible to surpass. Put Ball out of the director’s seat, and all that restraint goes away. When tensions run high at the funeral, it’s for a legitimate purpose. Never once is there any significant absence of dignity and forethought while understanding the roots of personality. That only grows with time, a consistent heartbeat as the story drifts between lighter relationship comedy and profound character study.
As these two converge, Ball is setting participants up for a touching ending worthy of slowly healing those bitter wounds. Bettany possesses a calm, yet fiery demeanor, stepping between stages of grief more gracefully than most of us would dream. Uncle Frank will certainly stand well among the rest of its close-knit award season brethren, holding its cool as events dampen one’s spiritual recovery from a bygone past where identity and self-acceptance were never easy to accomplish if the differences outweigh like-mindedness. In the 70s it was still borderline criminal and immoral in the eyes of some; nowadays, the burden has lessened, but no less difficult and nerve-wracking. If Ball’s film does nothing else, let it be that it embraces what makes us different, and allows us to belong somewhere in a family, rough and edgy as it may be, but still wonderfully wholesome. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Uncle Frank is currently streaming on Prime Video; rated R for language, some sexual references, and drug use; 95 minutes.