‘Uncle Frank’ sacrifices compelling stories for bland characters

Photo from the film, "Uncle Frank"
Amazon Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

Directed and written by Alan Ball, “Uncle Frank” takes place in 1973. The film follows college freshman Beth (Sophia Lillis), who leaves her hometown in South Carolina to attend New York University, where her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a distinguished literature professor. Upon her arrival, Beth soon discovers her uncle is gay and married to Wally (Peter Macdissi). Their story suddenly shifts, however, when Frank’s father passes away. Though reluctant to attend, Frank will have to take Beth to his father’s funeral, where he must face the ghosts of his past.

The film introduces Frank’s story from Beth’s perspective, resulting in an unnecessarily fast-paced first act. Enhanced by Bettany’s performance, “Uncle Frank” is at its best when moving away from Beth’s lackluster contributions to the plot. From an incomplete character arc to her somewhat awkward narrative detours in, Lillis’ role feels unnecessary and a cutback to Frank’s more exciting storyline.

Though Beth represents a sympathetic ally for her uncle Frank, she lacks a story of her own. The film sets up the first act as a coming-of-age story for Beth but it fails to properly execute this attempt. According to the film, she feels out of place with her family. Beyond a few snarky comments from her sisters, however, there is no explanation to her desire to leave home. Additionally, her only other storyline, involving a college romantic interest, is quickly disrupted to advance Frank’s narrative. Although “Uncle Frank” chooses to introduce Frank’s story from Beth’s perspective, it fails to give her a well executed character arc.

While “Uncle Frank” eventually shifts its focus from Beth’s blandness to Frank’s more complex story, she continues to stick around, despite adding nothing substantial to the story. Her irrelevance is best proven during a heated but intimate altercation between Frank and Wally. Rather than simply not having Beth in the scene, Ball chooses to include her —but she does little beyond scream and stand awkwardly on the side. Her presence comes off as invasive and incongruous.

The chief issue with “Uncle Frank” is that the time spent on Beth sacrifices more exciting stories in the film. A tragic loss from Frank’s adolescent love is revealed during the climax, but its rushed explanation makes the aftermath from the lovers’ breakup come off as excessive. It is also presented that Frank struggles with alcoholism, which causes him to be violent toward his husband. But again, the film fails to explore these themes thoroughly. Frank’s storyline showcases what can result from a parent’s rejection of their queer child and the consequences of alcoholism, but it fails to dive in entirely. The film could address these themes successfully, but instead, it spends 30 out of its 90 minutes focusing on Beth.

Despite the missed opportunities to expand Frank’s story, Bettany’s performance manages to keep the viewer’s attention. The actor’s skills are best seen in his portrayal of alcoholism. Before each sip of alcohol, Frank showcases a glare of hesitation that allows viewers to understand his need to indulge and escape his sorrows. His intricate approach to acting is also seen when his father’s lawyer reads the departed’s will. From his trembling hands to the spasms in his face, Bettany beautifully portrays the release of Frank’s built-up resentment. His performance perfectly contributes to the film’s drama, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

Ultimately, “Uncle Frank” is carried by Bettany’s stellar performance and the traces of what could have been a great storyline. Instead of spending a third of its time on a dull character, “Uncle Frank” could have achieved more, had it invested all of its time on the protagonist. The film has the narrative elements to tell a story many queer people can relate to, but its decision to foreground Beth ends up hurting it. Perhaps opening the film from Beth´s perspective was an attempt to attract wider audiences — but if a film must sacrifice nuance to be marketable, then is it worth watching?

Contact Brany Barragan at [email protected].