From the short synopses I read before watching Uncle Frank, I incorrectly anticipated a road-trip movie set in the ’70s with an unlikely trio driving across the US. What had the potential to be a layered romantic drama depicting a gay couple, each closeted to their own families, became an overwrought coming out story that relied on predictable traumatic flashbacks to drive momentum. The performances are better than the film, and writer/director Alan Ball (American Beauty; Six Feet Under) chooses to doubt the appeal of the central relationship between the two loving and bruised men. Instead, the set-up around an innocent teenager learning of her uncle's sexuality diverts to a coming-out story, and the film eventually loses its narrative thread.
We meet Beth (Sophia Lillis) at the tender age of 14 at a family dinner. She narrates her admiration of Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who has always been exterior to the family but is a kindred spirit. Frank escaped the small town to New York City, works as a professor at NYU, and is living with his lover Walid (Peter Macdissi), an immigrant from Saudi Arabia. But Walid has never been introduced to the family or even mentioned. Frank tells Beth she is so much more than the small town, but she's grown up in a strict, conservative family, and is yet to experience the world.
Cut to four years later, Beth is a student at NYU, and after overhearing that Frank is having a party, she arrives unannounced with her new boyfriend Bruce (Colton Ryan). Oh, but Frank's not even out to Beth, and the poor dear is too naive to put two and two together. So when she arrives, and Walid opens the door, he is surprised to be meeting someone from Frank’s family, while Beth thinks he’s just a welcoming friend. She gets plastered at the party, looking out of place in the big apple, while her boyfriend tries to seduce her uncle.
Frank outs himself to Beth after she pulls her face out of the toilet, and she tells him she has never met a gay person before. She never picked up on the family’s outcasting of her uncle, or how the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) treated Frank like trash. The next day, Frank receives a phone call from his Mamaw (Margo Martindale) that Daddy Mac has died, and together with Beth, they embark on a road trip. While Walid isn't invited on the trip, he catches up to Frank and Beth in a rental car anyway, and the three venture South for the funeral.
Well, the road trip aspect lasts about twenty minutes. Walid catches up to Beth and Frank just as their car breaks down. Convenient! Why Wally wasn't along for the ride from the get-go is anyone's guess. We see Frank and Walid arguing about the trip in the apartment, and the cheap coincidence just reinforced the same beat: Frank's reluctance to introduce Walid to the family. The structure is the main issue of this frequently melodramatic film and begins with Beth's redundant narration before her journey to University (and life). The narration explains exactly what we see on the screen, so it's worthless and misleads the audience to thinking Beth is the main character. This was never her film, and it shows a lack of confidence in telling a story about two male lovers trying to overcome their family’s prejudices.
For the caliber of actors in this film, Ball doesn’t allow anyone to shine besides Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, with supporting roles severely underwritten. The cinematography and music heighten the melodrama with soft natural lighting and slow-motion canoodling. But the elements don’t gel together with the story, so it feels like a soap opera, which is demonstrated in flashbacks to Frank's romance with his high school sweetheart. These scenes intercut the present without motivation, so you know a tragedy is awaiting the pair. It’s a predictable device that plays out as expected. There is a more sympathetic, romantic film here that deals with the same issues but isn’t distracted by teenage innocence or guilt from a tragedy years ago. It’s all fluff in the end because when you put Paul Bettany’s Frank and Peter Macdissi’s Walid together, you get beautiful chemistry and an understanding of devotion that deserved to be explored with clarity.
Coming out stories in cinema are common, as not everyone has to come out in their lives, and those that do face either acceptance or condemnation. But Uncle Frank feels like it's missing the point. It strolls through tired tropes and refrains from the opportunity to explore the love between Frank and Walid, as Brokeback Mountain did with Ennis and Jack Twist. We see Frank's and Walid's relationship, but the actors carry more weight to the story than the writing does. More often than not, we tell stories of the struggles of coming out without showcasing the other side of the coin, that two men can live, love, and prosper together amongst all the shit in the world. Just take a look at Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange in its honest portrait of a mature-age gay couple in New York trying to get by. These love stories don’t always need to be buried under tragedy, unresolved anger, and death, but can be seen as another raindrop in a river flowing full of life's challenges and rewards. After all, a queer person is more than just their coming out story.
Uncle Frank is a film that wanted to tell the story of a gay man coming out to his family, but decided to be a story about how an innocent teenager learns her favorite uncle is gay. This wasn’t her story, though, and the perspective the film takes is unfortunate. The real story was right under Alan Ball’s nose and it's a shame he couldn't see it.
Now available to stream on Amazon Prime