SUNDANCE LONDON REVIEW: ‘Uncle Frank’ (2020) Stages an Explosive Southern Coming-Out Story

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“The film’s perspective of a painful past from a more enlightened present is genuinely touching, and there’s an uncomfortable truth that really resonates with the struggles of today.”

Circumstances have forced this year’s Sundance London, a mini-offshoot of Park City’s legendary festival, to become even more mini. A dozen films from that line-up usually arrive in London’s Picturehouse Central, emissaries of the world capital of independent film, but this year only three have made the cut for an online-only event. In a pre-screening chat, Tabitha Jackson, the festival’s director, announces that she’s looking forward to business as usual in January 2021: the takeaway is that this is very much a placeholder event. But on the strength of the first night’s main event, it’s reassuring to see that quality hasn’t been sacrificed for quantity. 

Our first film is Uncle Frank, a coming-out/coming-of-age story written and directed by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), who introduces the film by relating his own coming-out story: both a little tragic and kind of funny, which is very on-brand. He talks about his dad’s possible closeted gayness and the genesis of the film – an “imagined history” of a gay man reckoning with his position as the black sheep of a traditional Southern family. It’s the 1970s, a time when being a dutiful son and being openly gay were simply incompatible for most.

We open with the sound of birds and cicadas, and an over-crowded family home, assembled for the birthday of the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root, perfectly cast as a small-town tyrant). It’s boisterous and noisy, but we quickly see that it’s the kind of home where the wrong type of expression isn’t tolerated. Mac’s son Frank (Paul Bettany) and young Betty (Sophia Lillis), his niece, feel similarly estranged from their family: recognising her alienation, Frank takes Betty aside and tells her that she can and should do anything to escape the gravity of their hometown, even changing her name if she wants to. Frank’s sensitive, literate, a good cook and even has a moustache, but Betty can’t see why he feels out of place. It’s a few years after Stonewall, but in Georgia it’s still the 1950s.

Four years later, Betty – now going by Beth – arrives at NYU to study literature, the same subject in which 46-year-old Frank is a professor. It’s just a few short years after Stonewall. Through the kind of overstepping of bounds that only happens in movies, Beth and her boyfriend wind up at Frank’s apartment where they meet his partner, Wally, an aeronautics engineer from Saudi Arabia – and Beth learns the reason why Frank so rarely shows up back in Georgia. If we miss the fact that Frank and Wally are gay, we learn that they also have a pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck.

The following day, Daddy Mac passes away. A car journey back to Georgia for Frank and Beth to save on airfare becomes a full-on road trip when Wally joins for emotional support – it’s Green Book for gays, or The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert without the costumes. But the closer they get to Georgia, the walls Frank imposes between his new life and his old one become thin, and a secret that he kept to himself comes to the surface. The consequences are destructive, particularly in Frank’s resurgent alcoholism, and Beth is forced to use the lessons she learned from Frank to guide her uncle through his trauma. It’s leavened throughout, however, with a lightness of touch: there’s welcome camp humour in a montage of home-cooked food arriving at a wake, and the line “My blowjobs are like poetry” is poetry.

As Frank, Bettany is terrific: his blithe dismissals and non-verbal nonchalance betray just enough of the ocean of pain resting beneath his surface. There’s “a layer between him and the rest of the world”, as Wally points out, and Bettany manifests it in every scene. Peter Macdissi matches him in the role of Wally, an outwardly cheerful man doing slightly better at maintaining his own facade of self-acceptance. Margo Martindale kills it in her few scenes as Frank’s mother and Mac’s grieving wife, and Sophia Lillis continues her ascent to stardom with her sensitive, understated role as Beth. It’s on her shoulders that much of the film rests, and her natural chemistry with Bettany and Macdissi is joyful. 

As in Six Feet Under, the pageantry of death becomes a suspension of normality, and a lifting of the veil under which we keep all of our family frustrations and secrets. At the reading of Mac’s will, a metaphorical bomb goes off, and the family’s polite ignorance is challenged head-on. The American South is well-trodden territory for Ball, and he has an eye for the small gestures of life, particularly the way that bigotry is tacitly encouraged by the inaction of bystanders and only barely kept in check by notions of southern hospitality. The spirit of Carson McCullers, also name-checked as one of Beth’s favourite writers, is invoked. But Ball’s screenplay paints in broad strokes. Uncle Frank often strains too hard to make its central trio seem metropolitan and progressive by caricaturing the people around them to provide contrast, particularly a cartoonish young mechanic. There might also be one too many contrivances in plotting for a lot of viewers to take the narrative seriously. 

Despite a few shortcomings, Uncle Frank is well worth seeing. The film’s point-of-view is unabashedly queer and personal, and Ball doesn’t flinch from depicting the emotional and physical violence of homophobia (even coming from gay men themselves, in a shocking scene that a lot of filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch). The message of the film is somewhat conservative: Uncle Frank won’t challenge viewers who like to be reminded that love and forgiveness overpowers all, and that misfits inevitably find companionship with one another. But the film’s perspective of a painful past from a more enlightened present is genuinely touching, and there’s one uncomfortable truth that really resonates with the struggles of today: that sometimes you just have to wait for the right people to die before you can achieve tolerance and acceptance.

Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute