In his latest film, Uncle Frank, writer/director Alan Ball explores issues with family, identity, and acceptance. The story, set in the 70s, focuses on Beth (Sophia Lillis), a bright young girl growing up in a small town in South Carolina. She doesn’t feel like anyone in her family understands her with the exception of her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He is a smart witty college professor who encourages her to choose her own path and get out of the South. Years later, Beth takes Frank’s advice and enrolls in New York University, where he also teaches. She discoverers that her uncle is gay and lives with his partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi, Ball’s real-life husband). Frank has kept his sexuality hidden from his family for decades. Before Beth can digest this new information, they learn that Daddy Mac, her grandpa/Frank’s father has passed away. Frank is reluctant to return home for the funeral because he and his father had a contentious relationship. But Beth and Wally convince him to go. On the trip back home, secrets are unearthed and demons come back to haunt Frank.
Family dramas are Ball’s strong suit. Just like with his series, Six Feet Under, he creates an interesting clan here. At the forefront is Bettany’s compelling performance. Frank’s defiance and strength hide a lot of hurt. That pain comes to the surface in several well-acted scenes where Frank has to face his past. On the flip side, Macdissi delivers comic relief with Wally. But he also shows a lot of depth underneath the humor. Lillis is a great new talent. Her character comes of age before our eyes, growing from a timid teenager to a confident young woman. The rest of Frank’s family is filled in with fantastic supporting actors like Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, and Judy Greer.
Ball loosely based Uncle Frank on his own experience with his father, who was closeted. He continually hits home the message of being true to yourself. Moreover, despite how smothering family can be and how you feel like you need to run away from them, once you return home you may realize that you actually do belong and this is where you’re supposed to be.