A movie like Uncle Frank will one day hopefully seem like a look at America that is no more. Even though it’s set in 1973, the movie still seems to touch on some harsh issues that haven’t changed over 50 years.
A TV movie for Amazon Prime, it’s recently been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie even though it does showcase some good acting for its entire cast. You can sense a little Southern Gothic allure typical in works of Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.
Paul Bettany plays the titular character, Frank Bledsoe, a literature professor at a college in New York City where his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis) also attends. Soon, she learns that Frank is gay and living with a man Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi). While Beth doesn’t show much surprise, she seems to be more inquiring more about her uncle.
Not much longer after that, they receive news that “Daddy Mac” (Stephen Root) Frank’s father and Beth’s grandfather has died and they plan a trip from NYC to Creekville, S.C.
Along the way, Beth finds out more about Frank and he comes to grips with a traumatic event from his past. When Frank was a teenager, he began a relationship with a boy Sam Lassiter (Michael Perez) that his father found out about and threatened violence.
This has created tension between Frank and his father. Even though his sister, Neva (Jane McNeill) knows about Frank’s sexual orientation and his relationship with Wally, his brother, Mike (Steve Zahn) and his wife, Kitty (Judy Greer) are in the dark. Mike and Kitty are Beth’s parents and in an earlier scene, there is a dinner scene where one of Frank and Wally’s female friends appears as a beard in an scene that is obvious.
Wally ends up tagging along following Frank and Beth, which comes in handy when they have car trouble. Along the road, they get a sense of the cultural difference between the north and the south. A grease monkeys gets corrected by Beth for his chauvinistic ways. An middle-aged woman at a motel is cautious about Beth sharing a room with Frank and Wally and insists she have her own room.
When they do finally arrive in South Carolina, Beth immediately notices more changes as a friend asks about the “Yankees” up at NYC and Kitty doesn’t know why she wants to stay at a motel. Her grandmother, Mammaw, and Aunt Butch, played respectively by the two great actresses Margo Martindale and Lois Smith, talk to her about corruption and what others will think. And for anyone who grew up below the Mason Dixon Line can probably just picture their female elders saying the same thing at one point in their youth.
The movie falters a little thanks to a revelation in Daddy Mac’s will that pushes Frank over the edge and the movie seems to restore to cliched and deus ex machina endings that are too saccharine. I seriously doubt in 1973 the family would’ve reacted the way they do.
Having a brother myself is is married to another man, sometimes it’s not an immediate acceptance with some family member. It takes time. But I’m sure a lot of people in the LGBTQ community can relate to the family members “who need a moment.”
Alan Ball, who wrote and directed the movie, like Frank grew up in the south during the post-WWII era in which things were expected to be one way for everyone. Daddy Mac berates the teenage Frank bringing the Bible into it and talking about he’s gambling his soul.
Even in 2021, people in the south, still bring up the sin of homosexuality but turn a blind eye to spousal and child abuse. I must add that I grew up in the district that elected Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress and there was a rape scandal from 2014 involving student athletes that hasn’t been resolved in criminal court. And there are those who suspect that it will never be resolved.
Uncle Frank doesn’t have the same punch as movies made in the 1990s or 2000s that dealt with LGBTQ issues. Maybe it’s because people are getting so used to it. Things take time and hopefully, people won’t have to suffer the same childhood traumas that Frank did.