Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Uncle Frank (from Oscar-winning writer Alan Ball) offered an engaging movie about queer acceptance while making me wonder if it would have worked better as a mini-series.
Uncle Frank didn’t deliver anything new in terms of queer narratives about growing up in small towns. However, the impressive acting made me feel invested in the lead characters, and the ending, while too convenient, was still a welcome one after all the drama.
The story is narrated by Betty (Sophia Lillis), as she shared how her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) helped her come into her own as a young woman. They’re both able to connect due to being different in their own ways. Betty’s into reading books and studying. She wants to have a career in the big city, which is something the other women in the Bledsoe family aren’t into. There’s also a lot of misogyny running in the family about how young women should think about their reputation. Of course, Frank, who’s a college professor in New York, has always encouraged Betty to follow her dreams and find a way to get out of the small town of Creeksville, South Carolina.
A 14-year-old Betty, while happy whenever Frank visited, couldn’t figure out why her grandfather (Frank’s father Daddy Mac) was always mean to her uncle. With the timeline jumping to her being 18 in 1973, changing her name to Beth, and attending the same college where Frank’s employed, that’s when Beth gets to know the truth about her favorite uncle.
I think Frank’s coming out to Beth and her acceptance of it were handled quite well. You can tell that Beth genuinely loved him and there’s no part of him she would ignore or force him to repress. She’s even liked Frank’s boyfriend-of-10-years Wally (Peter Macdissi). But before she could get to learn more about Frank and Wally while staying in their apartment, the death of Daddy Mac made the leads go and attend his funeral.
What followed was a road trip movie that had old demons popping up for Frank as they neared Creeksville. The film shared flashbacks to when Daddy Mac caught Frank being intimate with another teenager. Ever since that incident, Daddy Mac’s been hostile toward Frank. Other than that, the way Frank broke up with his then-boyfriend Sam and what it led to had always weighed on Frank. There’s a lot of guilt inside Frank and coming back to face his memories made things worse.
With Frank being an emotional disaster, who’s also picked up drinking again, the comedic elements were provided by Wally. He’s ready to do anything necessary to help Frank. But not to his own detriment (which I liked). Wally was very clear that he won’t go through Frank’s drinking problem again. I do have to say that the physical altercation between the two, near the end of the film, was a bit too much for me.
Through Wally, the narrative also talked about how different coming out and strained family relationships were for someone like Wally (a queer Muslim man from Saudi Arabia) and Frank. From Wally’s perspective, the chances of acceptance were higher in Frank’s American family even if Frank didn’t agree. With how things conveniently concluded, Wally was right.
Uncle Frank isn’t a bad film. It had a lot of good moments and some great acting (which duh! Look at the cast). However, the narrative moved way too fast for me. The story’s being told from three PoVs (Frank, Wally, and Beth) without each PoV getting the required stretching room.
That’s why I would have loved to see Uncle Frank be made into a mini-series. We could have had more time following Beth’s journey from Creeksville to her college in New York and how her world changed. We could have watched Frank and Wally’s relationship be fleshed out more. It’s clear there’s love between them. However, I think Frank was asking quite a lot from Wally without giving much in return.
There’s talk about how Wally saved Frank’s life (which I presume was related to Frank’s alcohol problem) and how Frank offered support when Wally’s father died. But we all know that when it comes to visual storytelling, it’s always better to show rather than tell.
Also, being a mini-series would have allowed Frank’s family to address his sexuality in their own time. Seeing everyone being okay with Frank’s coming out and being introduced to Wally, during the final minutes of the film, was way too convenient (and, in my opinion, unrealistic). I’m happy that Uncle Frank had a happy ending. But the way it happened felt off.
Still, if you’re into watching a queer movie that’s well-directed and features a lot of emotional acting, you should consider checking out Uncle Frank on Amazon Prime (released on November 25, 2020).
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Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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