AFI FEST 2020: Uncle Frank

(L-R) Paul Bettany as "Frank," Sophia Lillis as "Beth," and Peter Macdissi as "Wally" in UNCLE FRANK. Photo: Brownie Harris/Amazon Studios.

Uncle Frank is a period piece following a closeted gay man who is reluctantly returning home for his father’s funeral and unresolved trauma.

While conditions have improved to an extent for the LGBTQ community, things are certainly better than they were in 1973.  This is when South Carolinian teenager Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) heads off to New York University.  The move leads to a reunion with literature professor and Beth’s uncle, Frank (Paul Bettany).  What Beth wasn’t expecting to learn upon studying at NYC is that Uncle Frank is gay and living with longtime partner Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi).  Frank has never come out to his family and when his father suddenly dies, Frank reluctantly comes home to say goodbye.  It also means dealing with trauma he has refused to let go.

This film takes place a few years after the Stonewall riots.  However, being LGBTQ in New York is much different than South Carolina.  Nobody could blame Frank for leaving let alone being closeted.  And yet, this journey back home reveals another journey altogether dating all the back to Frank’s youth.  It’s a performance that Paul Bettany plays so beautifully.  Bettany may be the star here but writer-director Alan Ball surrounds him with a strong cast of performers.  Next to Bettany, the big standout performances belong to Sophia Lillis and Peter Macdissi.  Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, and the ever reliable Margo Martindale are among the rest of the cast.  All these actors alone are not enough to elevate the script at hand to where it needs to be.

Writer-director Alan Ball draws on his own life in penning this film.  He’s no stranger to grief having lost his sister in a car accident.  He also takes an incident that happened to another family member and places his own spin on it.  All of this goes on to form Frank’s core as a character.  Grief and trauma can both take a toll on us as people.  But when you get to the bottom of it, what Alan Ball does is make Uncle Frank a film that seeks to confront PTSD.  Even though Frank is gay, this film is about more than that let alone what it meant to be gay in the 1970s.

There’s a lot of potential here but despite a strong cast, Uncle Frank falls a just a tad bit short of the goal line.

CAST:  Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, with Margo Martindale and Stephen Root

Uncle Frank screens during the 2020 AFI FEST in the World Cinema program. Amazon Studios will release the film on Prime Video on November 25, 2020. Grade: 3/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.