Rated R. On Amazon.
As “Uncle Frank,” a litany of indie film cliches, opens, you might think it’s another indie coming-of-age story. Guess again. It’s really an indie coming-out to your South Carolina Christian family movie. Beginning in 1969, when the film’s South Carolina born-and-raised narrator Betty Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) is 14 years old, she is told by her “sophisticated” Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who is a literature professor at New York University that she is at that point in life when she can choose who she wants to be. If she “aces her SATs,” he tells her, she can attend any college in the country, and four years later, newly anointed “Beth” Bledsoe leaves humid, leafy, conservative South Carolina to go to NYU.
You’d think this would be the start of a story about how Betty became Beth, loses her virginity and becomes a physicist or something, right? Well, no. What happens instead is that Beth discovers something that most of us assumed from the beginning, i.e., that 40-something singleton Uncle Frank is gay and (something we did not guess) that he has a live-in lover named Wally aka Walid (Lebanon-born Peter Macdissi), who is from Saudi Arabia, and that Wally — in addition to being Uncle Frank’s wife — is also Muslim. Wally also has a pet iguana he has named Barbara Stanwyck. In case the film’s second thematic approach doesn’t grab you, Frank gets a call from his hysterical mother, Mammaw (Margo Martindale), telling him that his father, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), who constantly belittled him, is daaaay-yed.
This generates yet another film genre, the road trip movie, since Beth has promised her mother, Kitty (a wasted Judy Greer), never to step foot in one of those flying machines. On the way, Beth asks Frank a lot of questions about being gay, which he asks her to keep down, since we are in the 1973-era South. Frank also mentally relives the day his outraged father caught him in flagrante delecto with a boy from school. In the flashback, Daddy Mac informs young Frank that God will “cast him into the Lake of Fire” for his sins. Frank, Beth and the unwanted Wally arrive in Creekville just in time for the big Southern family funeral, complete with an irregular, but dramatically necessary reading of Daddy Mac’s will, which has a surprise footnote for the whole family to hear. On the whole, I’d rather be watching “Death at a Funeral,” again, instead.
Written and directed by Atlanta-born Alan Ball of “Six Feet Under” fame, “Uncle Frank” has plenty of histrionics and zero surprises. As if on cue, Frank, a recovered alcoholic, falls off the wagon. I expected them to use an actual wagon for this scene. Lillis is very good as Beth, and you wish the film were about her and not her boring, predictable, gay uncle. Steve Zahn is welcome as Frank’s younger brother. Lois Smith’s shrunken Aunt Butch chews Ball’s overwrought dialogue with relish. In the title role, London-born Bettany, best known as the voice of Iron Man’s computer, is a bit bland for a gay, 1970s-era lit professor at NYU.
(“Uncle Frank” contains profanity, sexually graphic language and drug use.)