There aren’t enough Paul Bettany movies. There, I said it. Bettany’s one of those actors who’s quietly and competently gone about building up an impressive resume, with just the occasional flashy role (the Avengers stuff) to remind us to check out his performances in smaller budgeted films. It’s totally cliché to say it, but Bettany can make bad films watchable. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Amazon Studios’ Uncle Frank. It’s watchable because it’s terrific.
The story follows Bettany as the titular character. Frank Bledsoe’s a well-respected literature professor at New York University who’s only come out to his friends. It’s 1973 and he’s uncomfortable allowing his homosexuality to be known on a wide scale. And he’s adamant about keeping his sexuality a secret from his family back home in Creekville, South Carolina.
Frank’s used to pretending around his family which leads to uncomfortable moments at family gatherings where he’s forced to dodge questions about dating and relationships. Frank’s dad, Mac (Stephen Root), is distant and withholds his love. Frank’s relationships with other family members are better, but it’s his 18-year-old niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), who holds a special place in his heart.
It’s only fitting that it’s Beth who’s the first family member to pull back the curtain and discover the real Frank, the one he’s kept hidden from his repressed, judgmental father and the rest of his family. Once she arrives in New York to study and learns about his 10-year relationship with Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi), Beth becomes his fiercest supporter and ally. Their relationship grows even closer as they make the drive from NY to the family’s South Carolina home for the funeral of a family member.
The road trip allows time to fully explore Frank’s world while opening up Beth to experiences and people alien to her small-town life. Frank’s the first gay person she’s ever met and as she watches the role he’s forced into playing around almost everyone they encounter, an unbreakable bond is forged.
Bettany and Lillis are outstanding and their onscreen relationship feels genuine and natural. Frank and Beth’s journey is an emotional rollercoaster, with painful, deeply buried secrets revealed and differences embraced. The uncle/niece dynamic is one that’s not usually explored and it’s beautiful to watch these characters evolve as they open up and allow their true selves to be exposed.
Peter Macdissi delivers a standout performance as Wally, Frank’s compassionate and loving boyfriend with an excellent sense of humor and a determined spirit. Frank’s got more than his share of skeletons in his closet, and it’s Wally who’s the dependable, stabilizing force when Frank’s at his most vulnerable. The first-rate supporting cast also includes Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Lois Smith, and the always wonderful Margo Martindale.
Uncle Frank touches on so many important subjects (including alcoholism) yet never feels heavy-handed or fake. Writer/director Alan Ball weaves a beautiful, sometimes funny, often heart-wrenching tale of love, forgiveness, and the quest for acceptance. And, yes, Bettany just makes it that much better.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, some sexual references, and language
Release Date: November 25, 2020
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes