Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Uncle Frank

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Uncle Frank
Directed by Alan Ball

Following his extraordinary Oscar-winning screenwriting debut with “American Beauty” in 1999, Alan Ball has made projects that deal largely with underrepresented groups and their interpersonal experiences in the world. “Six Feet Under” was a mesmerizing take on what it means to die - and to live - and “True Blood” used vampires as a metaphor for other minorities. His directorial debut film, “Towelhead,” looked at being Lebanese in Texas. Now, twelve years later, Ball is back with his second film, examining being gay in the 1970s and coming from a southern family, all as seen through the impressionable eyes of a college student.

Beth (Sophie Lilllis) departs her small South Carolina hometown to go to college in New York City, where she has the opportunity to get to know her Uncle Frank (Paul Brittany), who inspired her as a teenager to pursue her dreams. She quickly learns that Frank is gay and living with his boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi). When her grandfather dies, Frank and Beth begin a road trip back home which allows her to discover a good deal about her uncle as he grapples with horrible memories of what his father thought of him and how that shaped his life.

This film is rightfully titled with Frank’s name since Beth doesn’t play a huge part in the overall story, despite her helpful presence in framing it. Lillis deserves tremendous praise for standing out in each scene, determined to be heard and to give herself a voice, unhappy with the culturally accepted norms of the time that subjugate women. Bettany is excellent as well, making Frank layered and complex, crumbling as the final confrontation with his father brings him back to truly disturbing formative moments. Ball regular Macdissi provides superb comic relief and serves as a comforting, kind presence, and, in a small role as Beth’s mother, Judy Greer delights in each scene.

This film’s narrative isn’t entirely original, but the touches that Ball puts on it are recognizable and appreciated. The curiosity Beth expresses helps to make Frank all the more mysterious and alluring, and there’s a true humanity and sincerity to Wally that makes him very endearing, particularly as he copes with his partner not wanting him at his father’s funeral since he couldn’t possibly explain who he was to his family. This is a stirring, emotional film that affirms that Ball should continue making passion projects, bringing a sensitivity and understanding of his material each time.


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