Losing a family member is an incredibly difficult time in people’s lives. Not being able to lean on your support structure in such a moment only makes it that much worse. With “Uncle Frank,” Alan Ball gives us a completely heartbreaking look at one man trying to cope under such circumstances.
The movie, which largely takes place in 1973, is told from the point of view of Beth (Sophia Lillis), Frank’s niece. The family, save Frank (Paul Bettany), is a tight knit one living in South Carolina with Frank a professor at NYU. Frank is also gay, a secret divulged to Beth against his wishes when, as a freshman at the school, she crashes a party he’s having. Already a huge fan of his, Beth may be surprised by the news but soon accepts it and him. She also accepts Frank’s boyfriend, Wally (Peter Macdissi).
These moments, before the family tragedy strikes, are beautiful. Love is love and Beth, young though she may be and not yet having found a love of her own, seems to know it. Not having lived through the period I can’t say whether the attitude is an idealized one or a reality of the time, but whichever it may be, it is shattered when a phone call comes that Frank’s father—Beth’s grandfather—has passed away of a heart attack.
Played by Stephen Root, this man, Daddy Mac, was not as open and kind and generous as his eldest son nor his granddaughter. Despite their estrangement, Frank heads to South Carolina with Beth for his father’s funeral.
Although it takes a while for the movie to get to this point, it is here where the heart of the story truly lies. Beth gets to know her uncle (and Wally) better, gets to understand him better, and gets to see Frank’s interactions with the family through a new, heart-wrenching, lens.
The movie is Frank’s story despite Beth’s telling it and Ball manages the whole thing so that it doesn’t seem out of place that we get Frank’s memories of his youth and break from Daddy Mac. It is sun-drenched and sad, but it is not without hope and love.
Bettany and Lillis are great as is the rest of the cast, which includes Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, and Lois Smith. However, head and shoulders above everyone else is Macdissi. He infuses Wally with such incredible amounts of humanity that the character is larger than life and still completely realistic. An immigrant from Saudi Arabia who can never tell his family of his sexual orientation, all Wally wants is to see Frank through this period in a way that, because of Wally’s background, Frank couldn’t do for Wally when Wally’s father died.
Wally desperately wants to be a part of Frank’s family, or at least be known by them even if they don’t all accept him. He wants Frank to stay away from alcohol, with which Frank has had trouble in the past. He wants to get to know Beth both for who she is and for her relationship with his boyfriend. Macdissi conveys all of this in ways both big and small. He makes Wally the embodiment of love. It is happy and it is sad and it just pushes you to want the best for the other person. As Frank falls down the rabbit hole of memory, it is Wally who stands there at the edge, desperately trying to pull him back, and in no small part because of Macdissi, the audience reaches out with Wally.
Serious movies, “important” movies, have this tendency to run two-plus hours and many have no problem reminding you throughout just how serious and important they are. Clocking in at 95 minutes, “Uncle Frank” offers up not jut a fantastic story but a great set of characters. It quickly becomes a family that we know, that we love, and that we hate. We see Beth’s world expand and Frank’s world collapse. We also see what comes from all of this and wind up with hope for the future and knowledge that there is good in this world. Yes, the dark is still out there, it does still exist, but if we can all just find what Frank and Wally have, we’ll be alright.
photo credit: Amazon Studios