Photo: ‘Uncle Frank’/Amazon Prime
Engrossed in beaming sunlight, flanked by lush South Carolina foliage, we find the peculiar Professor Frank rested on the porch of his childhood home. Uncle Frank (of who the film is named) is a professor at New York University and a beautiful snapshot of the many men who led (and still lead) double lives because of his sexuality. Uncle Frank is queer and in this film we see his entire world fall apart, and gorgeously reassemble again.
The Amazon Video original picture cracks the world open and shows us precisely who we are at our core. Atlanta native Alan Ball writes and directs a southern atmosphere so small it’s own beauty begins to magically fold into itself; it’s rare that a film can understand its message so meticulously that characters begin to surprise the audience with their own truthfulness. In other words, the world of Uncle Frank is so well crafted, it’s honesty becomes a vehicle to enhance its artistry—most films suffocate in trying to perform the inverse.
Led by the incredible Paul Bettany, and It star Sophia Lillis, the film does a glorious job of using the environment to characterize its star characters. In Frank’s most vital moments we find him engulfed in naturism. Bettany plays Frank with a steady hand as he swings through the thematic curveballs tossed at his character. Grappling with the weight of being gay in the South during the 1970s, Bettany trudges through his character’s mud and comes out scathed and gloriously filthy with his performative genius.
‘Uncle Frank’ – Relationship and Restraint
His partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), is the perfect supporting role for a story that centers itself around the white south. While being a positive source of representation for queer Muslims, I fear that Wally is too perfect a character for the storyline. In this, I mean that I fear Wally becomes more of a token in some scenes and acts unreasonably at times. This fact works wonders for the story, but does Wally and what he represents no favors.
Wally, and Lillis’ character, Beth (who’s real name is Betty but is insistent on being called the former), are a dynamic duo in the operation to rescue Frank from his inevitable destruction. When we first meet Beth, she’s a young girl who’s fallen perfectly in place with her family’s expectations. Lillis is astonishing to watch as she balances a wondrous girlishness with a vivacious ambition to absorb the world and all its curiosity.
What all three of these actors have mastered is the art of restraint. This is especially apparent in Bettany’s work. Watching him fall back into old vices, seemingly backtracking to face the demons he’s left behind, Frank encounters the ultimate test to his sanity and livelihood. Simultaneously, he has to battle his own family as they harken that his queerness is a sickness that will damn him to hell. What’s brilliant about Ball’s direction is that we metaphorically (and sometimes literally), see Frank grace those fiery and bloody lakes right here on earth. At one point, it looks like Frank’s never gonna come back.
With the legendary Stephen Root playing Frank’s father, Margo Martindale, and Steve Zahn playing his mother and brother respectively, the cast is brimming with masterful performances. Root’s portrayal of a misguided viciously homophobic father gives the film the sharp edge it needs to raise the stakes for Frank. Root establishes a beautifully tense atmosphere in every scene he appears in, even when he doesn’t make a single sound.
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Progressivism and Learning from Our Past
The film unearths a hidden world rarely depicted on screen. While now referred to as being on the “DL” or down low, hiding your sexuality for your own safety is nothing new. In the film, Frank lived his life in New York entirely secret from the rest of his family. He tip-toed around his identity until being closeted from his loved ones became another intricate facet of who he was.
In one scene, Beth seems to nearly have a heart attack being exposed to New York’s underground queer and interracial dating scene. Watching characters squirm around relationships we now know to be commonplace is an expected source of comedy in the film; as if two people that love each other should be a source of controversy! Or at least, that’s how it should be. Watching a film set in the late 20th century that was filmed today can be a lesson on the nature of progressivism to the trained eye.
It’s a matter of understanding the potential of our future with a retrospective lens. The reason looking back on our history can lead us to find concepts like racism and homophobia to be entirely ridiculous in retrospect, is a sign that society is progressing past blind illogical hatred. Just as we as individuals cringe at our past selves, America cringing at its dark history is a sign of growth. Still, we are far off the mark. While our country should lead with love, we delve into irreverent hatred more often than not. While Uncle Frank may seem to be an antiquated look into a topic that’s now been embraced by society, we must not forget the tragedy LGBT+ people all over the world face.
On November 30th, Laverne Cox took to Instagram Live to detail a transphobic attack she and her friend experienced over the holiday weekend. While walking the L.A. trails, a man attacked her friend after asking for the time, and subsequently “guy or girl”. Luckily, both Cox and her friend are safe, but this is yet another grim reminder that the world has never been kind to trans people. While Uncle Frank highlights the gay experience, it’s vital for us to remember that the entire LGBT+ community needs our attention and support.
By the film’s third act, the circumstances seem so suffocating for Frank, I start to ponder the role of God in the film and what Ball is trying to say by writing such a relentless reality for him. It’s ironic that a film that’s so critical of Christianity and its justification for hatred manifests a miracle by the movie’s end. Suddenly, just as it seems Frank has succumbed to the pressure of those hellish ghastly waters, he surfaces. In the film’s final seconds, a world so overwhelmingly vast for our characters becomes so preciously small and delightful— it’s a heavenly experience.
Watch Uncle Frank now on Amazon Prime Video.
By Tyler Bey
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Tyler Isaiah Bey is a writer and actor from Atlanta, Georgia. His emphasis on storytelling through his work guides him through his writing. His theatre background has given him a love for honest performance and a strong appreciation for art. Hollywood Insider’s focus on education, philanthropy, and anti-drama is the perfect platform for Tyler who’s unique and often intersectional perspective gives him a honed edge to the work he creates. He finds joy in discovering powerful crossroads of current events and media and infuses this cultural awareness into his writing. For it’s these intersections that make art so powerful and writing such a pleasure for Tyler.