To Thine Own Self. . . (Film Review: “Uncle Frank”)

A bittersweet film that paints an all too familiar portrait of sexual prejudice and persecution in a not so distant past, America.

SnapShot Plot

There are some films which, site unseen, may seem small or even trite in dealing with a subject matter, time and place that – although still quite recent, relatively speaking – feel left behind for good. . . and a good riddance, to boot. Uncle Frank is one such movie, a quiet stunner of a picture that tackles the tragic reverberations of being a closeted homosexual in 1970s rural America. And did I mention? Along with the searing heartbreak, it’s funny as hell, too.

The family saga is seen through the na├»ve eyes of young Beth Bledsoe, a soft-spoken and natural intellectual born into a good’ ole boy Southern family. The patriarch of the Bledsoe clan is an iron-fisted, vitriolic grandfather whose temperamental outbursts are to be avoided at all costs. The family is typically Conservative and God-fearing, colorful characters all. Beth takes them in with a mischievous and sardonic amusement, suggesting her dream for a future much bigger than the confines of small town America, even if she’s not yet sure she deserves it. The one person in the Bledsoe family who can see the potential in Beth is her Uncle Frank, who teaches Literature at NYU and only makes rare, obligatory visits down South, mostly for family weddings and funerals. For Beth, Uncle Frank is the ‘one that got away’ but even more, he’s the person whose opinion matters, who looks her in the eye when he speaks, who makes her feel like she’s got consequential thoughts of her own and an adventurous life in store.

Uncle Frank is clearly Gay. But in 1973 Creekville, South Carolina, the truth of who he is has never been discussed, and we’re never sure how much of that verboten topic is a closing of a blind eye or a sincere ignorance. Or a combination of the two. Suffice it to say that Frank leads a painful, tortured double life: the totally closeted identity he maintains around his family, and the more open yet still carefully closeted life he leads in the academic circles of New York City.

When Beth makes the leap out of her rural backstory to study at NYU, she begins to know her uncle in a new and honest way. Thus forging a relationship with Frank and his longtime partner, Wally that will not only humanize her uncle in ways she never expected but will also solidify the moral compass taking shape in her own soul. When tragedy calls them home, Frank is forced to come face to face with the demons of his past, while new definitions of Self and Family are drawn in subtly shifting sands.

Parting Shot

With a performance by Paul Bettany that’s a marvel in understatement and emotional clarity, balanced by the naturally winsome appeal of Sophia Lillis as Beth, one could stop there and still have a successful film. But everyone from Stephen Root to Steve Zahn and Judy Greer were spot-on in their roles. Peter Macdissi’s portrayal of Wally as a big hairy Teddy Bear was especially heartfelt and also provided a kind of breathless ‘gee whiz’ comic relief absolutely called for in this kind of picture (he was also a producer on the project.) And God bless Margo Martindale; how this actor seems to gravitate to so many quality projects is boggling to the mind. She’s a national treasure.

Apart from the obvious LGBTQ theme in Uncle Frank, the interior message of the movie speaks to the many truths that people hide from themselves, their families and neighbors for fear of retribution or simply being ‘different’. The show’s writer/director, Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty and created the extraordinary series Six Feet Under, knows a thing or two about characters who keep secrets, and the poisonous toxicity that brings over time. Here he has created a small masterpiece of a movie, with a simple plot that will leave deep footprints on your heart.

Uncle Frank is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer

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