I can tell you that Uncle Frank is a road movie about a middle-aged American man in the early 1970s, his 18-year old niece and his life partner travelling by road to attend Frank’s father’s funeral. But what if I tell you Uncle Frank’s life partner is a man? And this is the super-conservative era when homosexuality was still swept under the carpet. Frank had many run-ins with his homophobic father (Stephen Root) when Dad caught Ideal Son in bed with Best Friend. The memories of father’s disgusted repudiation of his son’s sexuality haunt Frank as he drives with the two people closest to him.
Uncle Frank builds on the theme of duty and desire with an elegance fortitude and confidence that are indicative of a master at work. Nothing that director Alan Ball has done in the past, certainly not his shaky 2007 feature film Towelhead, has prepared us for this, clearly his creative awakening as much as the film is about Beth’s awakening of another kind.
Though the plot is filled with judgemental characters, and Frank’s family is unabashed in its prejudices, the film itself steers adroitly clear of judging either the hero for his homosexuality or his family for their reservations. To each, his own, seems a good enough description of the characters’ sedate morality, until of course, it all comes to a boil in a climax that brings the venomous prejudices out in the open. The veneer of sophistication falls off. We are face-to-face with a raging intolerance.
Among its many virtues (for one Turkish cinematographer Khalid Mohatseb’s exquisite lensing that brings nostalgia and immediacy into simultaneous play, all alas lost on the home medium) are the three principal players. Paul Bettany’s Frank, Sophia Lillis’s Beth, Peter Macdissi’s Wally are so in-character I wondered which came the first, the characters or the casting. Watch out for Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother. She is way too accepting of her son’s lover in the end. But the actress makes up for her character’s shortcomings by being constantly convincing.
Uncle Frank is a delightful film. Though mired in mores and morality it never sinks into a depressing introspection. It is not a ‘queer’ film although its protagonist likes men. Sexual preference is secondary. The choices in life are shown here to be far beyond the bed.
Directed by Alan Ball Uncle Frank Gets 3 and a half stars!
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