Set largely in the fictional Creeksville, S.C., Uncle Frank was filmed around Wilmington, N.C., by a writer/director who grew up in Marietta, Ga. Alan Ball (American Beauty; HBO‘s “True Blood”) knows the South and the intensity of the familial bonds that shape its culture — and sometimes drive people to cut ties to free themselves. In this case, the escapee is gay, 40-something Frank (Paul Bettany), happily partnered with Wally (Peter Macdissi, HBO‘s “Six Feet Under”) in New York City while still telling his family he has a girlfriend.
It’s 1972, and when Frank has to drive home for a funeral, both his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis, It) and Wally tag along, getting ever closer to the inevitable reveal to Frank’s family. The trip also stirs uncomfortable memories of Frank’s first love, which have coalesced into a knot of guilt that threatens to wreck everything he holds dear.
Uncle Frank is a coming-out movie, a road movie, a coming-of-age movie (Beth’s) and a family melodrama all rolled into one, and Ball makes some pleasingly unusual choices in each category. It’s all grounded by a heartbreaking performance by Bettany, shrugging off his Avengers gloss to appear vulnerable and a bit smug. Lillis is charming, despite her underwritten character, and Macdissi manages to be both hard-edged and the film’s comic relief. An A-list supporting cast also includes Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Stephen Root and the always amazing Margo Martindale.
Ball has long been a wry observer of cultural quirks, and while there’s a lot of drama in Uncle Frank, there’s also a great deal of humor, especially in its road-trip segment. Then, once everyone’s back at home, what had seemed for much of its length to be a condemnation of the South turns out to be a kind of love letter to Southern families — which may have their poisonous apples, like anywhere, but whose protective instincts can cut both ways.
Available to stream starting Nov. 25 via Amazon Prime Video