Uncle Frank (3 stars)

Uncle Frank

Alan Ball directs Paul Bettany and a fine supporting cast in a sweet and sentimental comedy drama

Best known as the creator of TV shows Six Feet Under and True Blood and as the Oscar-winning writer of American Beauty, Alan Ball settles into the director's chair for what is only his second feature (following 2007's little-seen Towelhead). Uncle Frank is a reliably enjoyable if slightly too sentimental story featuring a fine cast, led by rising star Sophia Lillis and Paul Bettany.

Lillis (It) plays Beth Bledsoe, a teen from small-town South Carolina who has always been enamoured with her Uncle Frank (Bettany) and the way he stands out from her squabbling, fairly humdrum family. An academic living in New York City, unlike the rest, he actually bothers to listen to her and encourages her education and creativity. Frank urging Beth to follow her dreams in 1969, leads four years later to her attending New York University, to the astonishment of her parents (Steve Zahn and Judy Greer). When Beth crashes one of Frank's parties, she discovers that he is gay and has been living with his lover Wally (Peter Macdissi) for a decade. A death in the Bledsoe family prompts both Frank and Beth to return home, with Wally in clandestine pursuit.

Bettany and Lillis are likeable and credible leads but Macdissi steals it out from under them with a quirkier turn as the cheerily belligerent, hen-pecker Wally, whose energy and optimism hides the pain of his own family situation in Saudi Arabia, where he has been maintaining the pretence of having a wife to his beloved mother and where being gay is punishable by death. There's ferocious work from the ever-reliable Stephen Root, playing the Bledsoes' monstrous patriarch Daddy Mac, who is almost solely responsible for Frank's self-hate, while 'Character Actress Margo Martindale' (as BoJack Horseman unforgettably dubbed her) and Lois Smith are welcome presences in the clan.

The use of flashbacks, which begin as rose-tinted and take a turn for the terrible, feels trite, and it's a bit on the nose, too, with its lessons. But mainly Uncle Frank sails by on the significant clout and charisma of its cast. It's a well-intentioned and rather attractive indie road-tripper, which simply can't resist tying things up neatly in the end.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from Wed 25 Nov.

Uncle Frank

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 35min
  • Directed by: Alan Ball
  • Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root