Alan Ball’s ‘Uncle Frank’ Poignantly Looks at the Struggles of Coming Out in 1970s America
“Uncle Frank” reminds us that it was not so long ago that social repression in this country was suffocating. Alan Ball is one of the great American screenwriters when it comes to telling compact, striking stories about hidden lives in America. In this film he combines two themes: Youthful awakenings to freedom and denying your own identity when coming back home. Even as the United States underwent rapid changes in the 1970s and sexual revolution was everywhere, there were still countless homes where being LGBTQ meant exercising a dual life.
Beth (Sophia Lillis) is 18 and has a sharp mind. Her whole life she has only known rural existence in Creekville, South Carolina, with a family run by rugged men like her dad, Mike (Steve Zahn) and grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). One member does stand out, her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a literature professor at NYU. Despite being the kindest male in the bunch, Daddy Mac always has a way of insulting or intimidating Frank. The family also seems turned off by Frank’s more educated air and the equally sophisticated attitude of his girlfriend. When Beth gets accepted into NYU she moves into the big city where even her first friend on campus begs for an audience with Frank. When Beth crashes a party Frank is hosting at his apartment she makes a startling discovery: Frank is gay and lives with a partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi). News suddenly arrives from back home that Daddy Mac has died. Now Frank, Beth and Wally make a road trip to Creekville and Frank must decide if now is the time to finally come out to his family.
Ever since Alan Ball first broke onto the scene as the writer of “American Beauty,” his work in film and television tends to connect through the thread of American society that forces its citizens to hide or be denied the freedom of their identities. “Uncle Frank” contrasts two Americas in the ‘70s, the quickly changing city where sexual norms were shifting and rural communities where vicious homophobia was still common. For Ball the educated class can sometimes be clueless, but at least form a progressive pushback. This is a pattern in his films like “Towelhead” and shows like “Here and Now.” Yet “Uncle Frank” is different in that the refined and cultured Frank is not necessarily a hero. As the road trip to Creekville begins he becomes a more complex personality, full of scars and resentments. Flashbacks reveal his first sexual awakenings as a young boy with another local boy, and how Daddy Mac might have always been aware of his orientation, cruelly carrying out a silent pact with his son. He didn’t keep Frank’s secret out of solidarity, but shame. “I hope this shows how much more accepting we are a society, even if there is much we still have to improve on,” said Lillis to Entertainment Voice. “Beth sees Uncle Frank as a mentor and it helps her become more independent. Before I started acting I didn’t have that confidence and with that discovery I found a drive. I can relate to Beth in that way, in finding your path.”
On another level “Uncle Frank” is also enjoyable as a fun drama about a young woman in the ‘70s bonding with her uncle and his vivacious boyfriend. Ball pens some funny yet endearing moments, as when Beth and Frank have breakfast at a diner and she asks aloud if he always knew he was gay, this prompts Frank to quickly warn her to be quiet. Sophia Lillis, who has built quite a following after appearing in the rather brilliant “It” films, has the charm of an eager, sharp mind learning just how diverse the world is. Meanwhile, Wally keeps Frank’s temper in check, and shares about fleeing deadly anti-gay persecution in Saudi Arabia. This marks another role in a Ball production by Peter Macdissi, who tends to play Middle East stereotype-busting characters in Ball’s work. “Obviously breaking those stereotypes is my vocation,” said Macdissi about playing Wally in the context of his wider work with Ball. “It’s super important for other ethnic groups to be included in the industry, that’s a big thing for me. Obviously Middle Eastern characters have been very demonized in America, especially after 9/11. I think my role is to present these characters as people, as relatable to you and me. We need to show that people are people. With Wally I am so glad that he’s resonating with people, specifically because he is an immigrant, he is a Muslim, he is from Saudi Arabia. It’s a mission I hope I’ve accomplished in this movie. Without sounding too pretentious, it is a battle I will be fighting for the rest of my life.”
The third act of “Uncle Frank” then turns into an emotionally roiling chapter where Frank must make the choice of telling his family who he is. This is strict Bible country, where someone like Frank’s mother, Mammaw (Margo Martindale) did as Daddy Mac commanded, while even grumpily likeable Aunt Butch (Lois Smith) might be accepting and condemning at the same time. Here we get some of Paul Bettany’s best recent work. Having been defined more recently by his work in Marvel’s “Avengers” sagas, it’s been easy to forget how great of an actor Bettany is when playing down to earth personalities. He gives Frank the intellect of a natural professor, but also a haughtiness that comes from feeling marginalized. “My father was a closeted gay man who came out at 63,” said Bettany in how he drew inspiration. “The dogma of his Catholicism dragged him back into the closet and he was sort of in denial that he’d ever had a relationship with a man… that struck me as incredibly tragic. He could never really be authentic with anybody, not even his family. Rather than get to know my father, I only heard repeated, curated anecdotes about his life. But his real life was always kept at arm’s length.”
“Uncle Frank” has Alan Ball’s distinct voice, returning to the themes that obsess him. But they are relevant themes, both in what they say about the past in how they remind us we still live in a world or prejudices. To be gay in America today is much different than 50 years ago. Characters like Frank remind us about that past, even as we still battle over rights and the freedom to live as one is. Hopefully in a very near future Frank’s ordeal seems more alien, strange, and wrong. For Macdissi the message remains timely. “The movie is important because of what it shows about the ‘70s and how it was… and we’re always thinking about America leading the world in this issues, well and Europe too, but it’s so medieval that we still in a world with remnants of these issues with people not being able to live as they want, whether because they are gay or because they may be immigrants.”
“Uncle Frank” begins streaming Nov. 25 on Amazon Prime Video.