Atlanta Film Festival Review: Uncle Frank

Score: B+

Director: Alan Ball

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Stephen Root

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rated: R

Uncle Frank is perhaps the most deeply personal project Alan Ball has ever worked on, and it's by far the best movie he's ever written. Paul Bettany - criminally underrated his entire career - is magnificent in the title role, a gay man who's out to his friends in New York City, but still closeted to his family back in South Carolina. His two worlds collide when his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) starts attending NYU, and spending more time with him on and off campus. After crashing a party at his apartment and spending the night, she meets his boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi), a Saudi immigrant.

When Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) - Frank's dad and Beth's grandfather - dies unexpectedly, the three of them road trip back home for the funeral, still planning on keeping up the charade. The quiet moments and small talk betray Ball's theatrical background, but many of these scenes are deeply effective, particularly Frank's post-service chat with Neva (Jane McNeil), the only other family member who knows his secret. The movie really does nail all of the Southern traditions associated with funerals, down to the endless parade of covered dishes.

There are also tragic flashbacks, done in the most cliched way possible, revealing Frank's first love and the rift with his father. Both this and a brutal will-reading scene are somewhat restrained. There's a much more over-the-top version of this that could have been done (and basically was, in the extremely loud adaptation of August: Osage County). That the showrunner of True Blood ever learned to tone something down is something of a miracle.

But the film ends in too tidy a fashion. For being a period piece set in small town South Carolina, its ending strikes me as a tad unrealistic. But this is a deeply open-hearted film, and perhaps aspirational for how things might be, instead of how they actually were. And with the focus on Frank, its great ensemble cast is practically wasted. I'm not sure why you would cast Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale and Lois Smith if you're only going to use them for 10 minutes.

Uncle Frank will be particularly resonant for anyone who grew up gay in the South, or had a closeted family member. That it's so touching is a testament to Bettany's performance.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.