7th August 2020 (Sundance London Film Festival Premiere)
In 1973, when Frank Bledsoe and his 18-year-old niece Beth take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, South Carolina for the family patriarch's funeral, they're unexpectedly joined by Frank's lover Walid.
Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi
R (US), Not Yet Rated (UK)
“You gonna be the person you decide to be? Or you gonna be the person everyone tells you, you are?”
Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany; Solo: A Star Wars Story, A Knight’s Tale) is an outcast among his own family, except with his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis; It: Chapter One and Chapter Two), whom he sees a bright future for. Beth has a soft spot for her Uncle Frank, especially when he promises her an escape to New York once she starts college. Both don’t quite belong in their family or the beliefs of South Carolina. Their relationship evolves when 5 years later she can finally start afresh. As the two spend more time together, Frank reveals his secret life to her and introduces her to his partner of 10 years, Wally (Peter Macdissi; The Losers). As she begins to understand his life, devastating news of a family death means they must road-trip back to their hometown and face the past.
Paul Bettany is sensational in the titular role. His confidence when he is at his home in New York oozes out, but as the road trip brings him physical nearer to his past, we see cracks begin to form in his persona. The closer he gets to his home, the further away from his own peace of mind he feels. Even with Wally by his side, he can’t lean on him for support as he’s reminded constantly of his father’s dissaproval. It’s a tragic thing to witness someone break down over time and Beth handles the transition beautifully without anything feeling forced.
Peter Macdissi is particularly memorable as Franks partner Wally. It would be easy to call him the “comic relief” but his performance is much more layered. Whilst Frank’s starts to crumble, Wally remains upbeat despite his anxieties, wanting to stay strong for the man he loves. His best comedic moments are during scenes of tenderness and warmth.
The ensemble cast is quite extraordinary with great turns from Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Stephen Root and Margo Martindale. Frank’s family each come across with their own individual beliefs but all feel trapped in their home town. Seeing how open and free Frank and Beth feel away from the constraints of a small town and an overbearing father/grandfather make you wonder if the family have problems or if it’s an environmental issue.
One of the films strongest element is the stunning production design. From the opening scenes until the credits, you never question the 1970’s ascetics. Cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot also helps capture the time period perfectly, turning seemingly standard forests and lakes into places you can almost feel. It’s easy to be transported to a fantasy world, but it’s a real treat when you are transported into the rather mundane past.
Despite a lean 95 minutes, Uncle Frank really allows the narrative room to breathe and there’s no rush towards Frank’s inevitable final confrontation. We’re allowed a lot of time with Frank, Wally and Beth when they’re at they’re most relaxed. We see them discuss a host of issues in their cars, both serious and silly, and it’s impossible not to form a connection to the three of them. It would’ve been easy to add unnecessary exposition to try and further our understanding of them all but Oscar Winning writer/director Alan Ball (American Beauty) really understands the old cliche of “less is more”.
Uncle Frank is a really moving piece of work, but it has plenty of time to be funny and uplifting alongside the tougher scenes. There’s no doubt the screenplay has lots of strength but the faultless performances and the authentic 1970’s aesthetic elevate it into something quite special.
Reviewed as part of London’s Sundance Film Festival 2020, Uncle Frank is slated for a 26th November 2020 release through Amazon Studios.
Central performances are outstanding
Cinematography and Production Design captures the time period perfectly
Balances the tragedy and comedy very well
Could've done with a bit more of Stephen Root's character