Uncle Frank is about a young woman, Beth, who doesn't feel she fits in with her southern, small town family. She finds kinship with her family's other outcast, Frank, her father's brother. When Beth moves to New York City to go to college, she learns that uncle Frank is gay and no one in the family really knows. When the patriarch, Daddy Mac, Frank's father, passes, Frank and Beth head down to South Carolina. Of course despite Frank's insistence, Wally, Frank's partner, stows away on the trip and elevates Frank's stress levels in an already tense situation. The film stars Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Lois Smith, Jane McNeill, Colton Ryan, and Stephen Root. The film is written and directed by Alan Ball. The film is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.
If you're a little confused by my synopsis, that's because Uncle Frank is quite a bit confused about what it is, too. At different points it's a light comedy, a coming of age story, a coming out story, a deep drama, and a road movie. The advertising is very misleading for this one because I'm sure Amazon wasn't positive on how to categorize it either.
The film starts out as being in the point of view of Betty, who later goes by Beth because she's forming her own identity. In fact that is the premise we're led to believe will be the through line of the film is that of Beth learning to be like her favorite uncle. Then there's a titanic shift about halfway through and even though Beth pops up periodically to remind us it's her story, our point of view is almost solidly in the great, grand drama and tragedy of Frank.
It's a strange device to have Beth as a point of view at all as she's so underwhelming and underwritten as a character. I can't fathom why the stronger more emotional story of Frank's relationship with his father is not the entirety of the film. It's strange to have this bookended narration about this young woman's coming of age to ignore her when the meatiest bits of the story play out.
I do enjoy the scene as Frank comes back to get the reaction of each family member after his outing. Most are what you would expect, ranging from grudging acceptance to polite ignorance, yet the best is saved for last when Frank comes to Mammaw, his mother. Their heart to heart is tender and sweet and with a hug, she accepts Wally into the family, too. It's an excellent sequence of scenes. I wish these characters had gotten more of their due.
Yes, if she had more meat to her part, I would be doing nothing, but praising Margo Martindale for her portrayal of Mammaw, but there isn't enough there. Though, I did truly enjoy the performance of Peter Macdissi as Wally. He has that bright sunshine outer disposition of many gay men, but with the darkness hovering just below the surface. I like the way Macdissi handles the comedy and the deftly pulls off the drama. He breaks your heart in one moment and you cheer for his strength in the next.
Uncle Frank is about Uncle Frank, but it's also about Beth. I wish the filmmakers had picked one point of view and stuck with it. The film could have been an excellent tragedy, a fabulous gay road trip, or a great family dramedy, but it tries too hard to be all of those things at once. Too much focus is pulled in every direction to make it a truly satisfying narrative. I think you can skip this one and just rewatch Happiest Season.