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.