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Family ties, family secrets – ‘Uncle Frank’

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There are few tighter bindings than family ties. No matter how we might try to escape them, no matter how we might want and need to separate ourselves from them, for so many of us, they are unavoidable. But while these ties are ostensibly spun from love, there’s an undeniable toxicity inherent to many of them.

“Uncle Frank,” the new film from writer/director Alan Ball, offers an illustration of how deeply those toxic waters can flow, even as those who seek to escape prove unable to extract themselves from the unrelenting riptide of familial dynamics; it shows just how much of ourselves we’re willing to hide in order to find some sort of connection with the ones who raised us.

With a titular character living a double life – closeted with his South Carolina kin, out and proud in New York City – we see what happens when the oft-avoided cultural clash between those two worlds is no longer so easily dismissed, as well as when a naïve young member of the family inadvertently discovers the truth about her beloved uncle. It’s about small-town social mores in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a snapshot of what it means to be true to yourself – including the consequences.

In the small town of Creekville, South Carolina in 1969, it’s a quiet kind of life. The twin pillars of family and faith provide the structure of the everyday. This is the world in which the Bledsoe family lives. Patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root, TV’s “Perry Mason”) and matriarch Mammaw (Margo Martindale, TV’s “Mrs. America”) oversee their sprawling brood, with Daddy Mac inspiring adoration (and more than a little fear) from children and grandchildren alike.

Betty (Sophia Lillis, “Gretel & Hansel”) is 13 years old. Her dad Mike (Steve Zahn, “Cowboys”) is the younger son of Daddy Mac and Mammaw; he and her mom Kitty (Judy Greer, “Valley Girl”) love Betty, but don’t really connect with her. In fact, Betty doesn’t really connect with anyone in her family … except Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, “Avengers: Infinity War”).

Uncle Frank – elder son of Daddy Mac and Mammaw – isn’t around the family much. There’s a lot of hostility toward Frank from his father; everyone else either joins in with or studiously ignores the negativity. But when he’s there, he pays attention to Betty – inspires her, really, to reach beyond the borders of her tiny town.

Four years later, Betty – now going by Beth – arrives for her freshman year at NYU, the same institution where Uncle Frank teaches. Through a series of unanticipated circumstances (largely at the behest of a boy that she likes), she winds up crashing a party at her uncle’s apartment, where she meets Wally (Peter Macdissi, TV’s “Here and Now”), her husband’s partner of over a decade. Now, finally, she learns the source of her family’s anger/disdain for Uncle Frank; not all of them know his secret, and most that do think he’s damned for it.

But when an emergency means that Frank and Beth must head back to Creeksville, the pair set out to drive from NYC to South Carolina … and to get to know one another along the way. However, there are more than a few surprises waiting for them, both on the road and in the familiar place where they both grew up.

“Uncle Frank” is a lot of things – part family drama, part road movie, part coming out story – but it manages to largely avoid becoming the muddle that such a wide-ranging collection of distinctions might indicate. There’s a ton going on here, but the fundamental truth of the story is never lost.

That truth is a simple one – our families have a hold on us, whether we like it or not. How we choose to deal with that hold is up to us, but it’s there. Even someone like Frank, who has built his own family in his tight-knit New York crew, can’t help but feel that connection … even when the connection offers him nothing but sadness and pain.

“Uncle Frank” is a great-looking film; Ball has done fine work in capturing the period aesthetic in a very clear, specific way. And that’s not just production design; the film as a whole is reminiscent of the films of 1970s New Hollywood. Character-driven storytelling is relatively thin on the ground these days, so it’s nice to see. Movies like this can sometimes get caught in the trap of focusing too much on their message at the expense of all else, but here, while the message is central, it never supersedes the rest of the proceedings. It isn’t substance over style or vice versa, but rather a solid balance of the two.

The ultimate success of this movie rides on the shoulders of Paul Bettany (and to a slightly lesser extent, Sophia Lillis). Without an insightful and intimacy-inviting turn in the titular role, “Uncle Frank” never gets off the ground. In Bettany, we get someone more than capable of handling the emotional heft required of the role. He gives a nuanced and vulnerable performance, setting the intellectual snark against the inescapable feelings of otherness. Lillis, who is one of our most gifted young performers, does some dynamite work of her own. Her Beth is practically vibrating with positive energy and naivete, a wide-eyed generosity of spirit that perfectly evokes just why the connection between her and her uncle is so strong.

All that plus an absolutely stacked supporting cast. Macdissi is relentlessly charming as Wally, exuding likability constantly; he’s the key to the exquisite relationship chemistry between Wally and Frank. Root is always great, but I particularly like it when he subverts his gregariousness into something darker and meaner like he does here. Martindale is a treasure, embodying beautifully a certain type of mid-century Southern housewife. Zahn and Greer are lovely together as Beth’s parents; Zahn’s blend of affability and offensiveness is particularly engaging. Lois Smith and Jane McNeill are great as well.

“Uncle Frank” is a lot of things, most of them quite good. There are a few bumps in the road, but for the most part, this is an emotionally impactful, tender and surprisingly funny journey. We’re all forever connected to our families – we should all be so lucky to have those families include an Uncle Frank of our own.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 30 November 2020 09:53

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