A gay urbanite travels home to visit a family that does not know about their loved one’s sexual orientation; it’s a situation that’s played for comedy in “Happiest Season,” but in “Uncle Frank,” writer-director Alan Ball mines the situation mostly for drama, although not without his signature wit.
Those moments that land, whether funny or moving, occur when Ball isn’t getting in his own way and instead trusts in the characters he’s written and the actors who are performing them. Overall, the film works, but there are times during this road-trip saga where one wishes Ball would apply the brakes.
It’s the fall of 1972, and Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, “It”) is entering NYU as a freshman. Her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) teaches there; on a trip home four years earlier, he encouraged young Beth not to follow the set paths laid out for her by their small town, but to make her own decisions and to craft her own life. When Beth’s parents Kitty (Judy Greer) and Mike (Steve Zahn) bring her to New York, Frank has them over for dinner so they can meet his girlfriend Charlotte (Britt Rentschler, “Lodge 49”), who says Frank has never mentioned her to the family because she didn’t think they’d accept him having a Jewish girlfriend.
Except he doesn’t: Crashing a party at his apartment one night, Beth learns that Frank is gay, and his partner of ten years is Walid (Peter Macdissi, “Here and Now”). She’s barely begun to process all this new information when Frank gets a call that his father, and Beth’s grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) has died. Frank and Beth make their way south for the funeral — not realizing until well into the trip that Walid is following along in another car — where Frank will be forced to face long-buried secrets of the past that continue to haunt him.
Ball’s screenplay is structured to reveal much of Frank’s history toward the end, which would be fine if it didn’t make earlier conversations so baffling. When Walid insists on being there with him for the funeral — even though it’s been established that they agreed Frank should be nowhere near the funeral of Walid’s Saudi father years earlier — that insistence doesn’t make sense for the film’s time and place until we understand the full ramifications of what Frank’s going to have to face in the wake of Daddy Mac’s passing.
It’s one of several moments where the film’s dramatic structure feels like it’s awkwardly in service of an end result; the road trip itself, for example, is obviously more cinematically interesting than two people taking a flight, but rather than establish its function organically, we get a few tossed-off lines about it having something to do with Kitty’s fear of flying.
On the other side of these bumps in the road lie a plethora of grace notes, from Bettany’s slow and subtle disintegration as the long-buried trauma that underlies his self-loathing comes up to the surface to the spot-on casting (by Avy Kaufman, “Let Him Go”) that slots just the right actors for Frank’s relatives, who are both exasperating and deeper than they might at first appear. (In addition to Greer, Zahn, and Root, we get Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother and Lois Smith as his busybody aunt.)
Also deserving of a shout-out is whichever member of the art department designed the 1972 casseroles brought by neighbors to Daddy Mac’s wake; they will trigger a Proustian rush to anyone who lived in the South during the Nixon administration.
While Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee get name-checks here, it’s a pity that Ball’s Southern saga reduces Beth to a glorified bystander once Frank comes on the scene. The film is ostensibly from her point of view, and she gets the last word in the narration, but she’s shoved to the sidelines in a way that the protagonists of “The Member of the Wedding” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” never do. What “Uncle Frank” does do is provide a spotlight to the kind of men that this country, and the South in particular, forced into the shadows for far too long.