Stuck in a rural backwater in 1970’s America, teenager Beth Bledsoe (as played by Sophia Lillis) is much smarter than her surrounding family. Dominated by the volcano-like presence of Stephen Root’s Daddy Mac, everyone must kowtow to this toxic outbursts. Everyone except for Uncle Frank (as played by Paul Bettany). A satellite in seemingly terminal orbital decay around Dady Mac’s affections, Uncle Frank is the quiet one that got away. Having found a life for himself as a literature professor in New York Univesity, his open-mindedness attracts Beth’s intellect.
... Uncle Frank will put solid bacon into your blood.
Years later, when Beth decides that New York is the best place to take her A grades, she enrols at the same university as him. However, when she gets there she uncovers a hidden secret: Frank is gay, and living with longtime partner Walid “Wally” Nadeem (as played by Peter Macdissi). A fact that he has managed to keep hidden from his family is suddenly brought into sharp focus when he receives news of Daddy Mac’s death.
Reluctantly forced to return home for the funeral with Beth, can Frank finally face his family and the deep-seated trauma that he has spent his entire life running away from?
Before we get started, two words – Alan Ball. Now for anyone familiar with 1999’s American Beauty or 2001’s Six Feet Under, you should know what to expect from Uncle Frank. Possibly more personal than any other of his signature works, his latest movie also bears a similar hallmark to all of his other works: a killer cast.
Whether its It‘s Sophia Lillis who perfectly judges the mood of a teenager looking for guidance or Steve Zahn’s perfectly pitched needy second son or Margo Martindale’s matriarchal presence, everyone makes their minutes count. Yet, it’s the on-screen relationship of Paul Bettany as Uncle Frank and Peter Macdissi as Wally that really steals the silverware. In that classic way that Alan Ball layers his characters, Wally initially feels like comic relief to Frank’s increasing angst but he isn’t.
In classic Ball-like fashion, Wally becomes a catalyst to open up the innermost hopes and fears of those around him. Working in opposition to suppress any sense of openness is Stephen Root’s portrayal of Daddy Mac. A mean and bitter man who cannot see past his own prejudice, Root gives a smouldering dislike to every sentence that leaves his mouth. All of which works wonderfully for Paul Bettany’s increasingly fragile performance as Frank. As the man who would / could and should still be Bond (-yes, he really could do it), Paul Bettany reminds you just what a terrific character actor he is when blessed with the right material. Breaking down on the inside, his explosions are both suitably jagged and uncomfortable and perfectly suited for a character of this calibre.
Again, in keeping with other Alan Ball productions, the choice of music is a key elevator here. Cushioning and absorbing the blows more and more as the movie moves into its latter stages, it perfectly finds space within Ball’s trademark one-liners and a script which lulls you into a safe space, only to tragically disarm you.
Yes, Alan Ball does have something about bereavement dramas but you can expect many laugh-out-loud moments and to cry a fair bit as Uncle Frank will put solid bacon into your blood.0