Paul Bettany has never been better than he is in the gripping drama, "Uncle Frank."
The actor has been around for decades now, known to most modern movie-goers as Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a character actor, he's been a solid presence in nearly everything he's ever been in. But in some ways, over 30 years in the business, Bettany seems to arrive as an actor in "Uncle Frank," giving a tender yet nuanced performance that might just land him some serious award consideration for the first time in his lengthy career. It would be well-deserved.
Not only is Paul Bettany superb, the film itself is one of the best of the year. "Uncle Frank" centers not on the titular character, Uncle Frank (Bettany), but on his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis, a familiar face from the "IT" movies but in clear "breakout" territory with this role). Beth comes from what you might call a simple Southern upbringing, an impressionable young woman who happens to idolize her Uncle Frank, a closeted gay man living in New York. Beth sees herself wanting more than what her close family and community has to offer, and their status as the black sheep in the family bond them together. Their relationship, the other character connections and the power of the story drives the drama in some incredibly moving ways.
The film - set in the early 1970s at a time when it was not at all common to be gay and "out" - shows Beth's small town family and how hard it is for a person to achieve upward mobility. Most of the people in her family are stuck living the only life they know...many small town folks don't have great aspirations to expand their worlds outside of what they already know, for example.
A terrific supporting ensemble - Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Caity Brewer, Lois Smith - give live and breathe personality into Beth's family members, headed by "Mammaw" (esteemed character actress Margo Martindale) and Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). The family lives under the stubborn, stone-fist of their patriarch, and to call him "stuck in his ways" might be an understatement. While opening presents, for example, Daddy Mac makes his disdain for his son, Frank, publicly known...he's a cold man that is ultimately a product of his generation. But while Frank would hate to admit it, Daddy Mac has had a lasting impact on Frank, and his cruelty resulted in the most traumatic episode of Frank's life...one that he still carries with him even in adulthood.
When Beth finally moves to attend college in New York, she discovers her Uncle's secret, and also meets his roommate, Wally (Peter Macdissi). Some tragic news back home sends the trio back to South Carolina where years and years of tension finally bubble over and explode.
Written and Directed by Alan Ball (creator of HBO's "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood" and Oscar-winning scribe of "American Beauty" ), he crafts a deeply personal, emotional film that's populated by three-dimensional characters that we care about. At a tight 95 minutes, it's remarkable how much we feel like we know these characters in such a short time. There are some light-hearted moments shared between characters, but there's also some incredible pain revealed in moments quiet and loud. It's a film about acceptance, and not so subtly, about how bigotry is largely generational. In fact, you can almost draw a line from the youngest to the oldest character in the film, to see the spectrum of homophobia from total acceptance to unbridled hatred.
"Uncle Frank" is powered by Bettany and Lillis, but grounded in the humanity of the script. It's Ball's best work since "American Beauty" and a screenplay that just might land him another nod. Yes, from what's going on in front of the camera to what was taking place behind it, it will be hard to keep "Uncle Frank" a secret come awards season.
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Starring: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Steve Zahn, Peter Macdissi, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root.
Written and Directed by Alan Ball ("Towelhead," HBO's "Six Feet Under" & "True Blood").
"Uncle Frank" is available on Wednesday, November 25th, 2020.
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