Growing up often leaves us with a tunnel vision imposed by adults. Eager to protect the young from bad, potentially harmful things it seems members of our own family can deny us simple truths, guaranteeing that those things will surface as a rude shock when uncovered down the road of life.
Such is the story line for “Uncle Frank,” a Mississippi-slow mover played out against the willowy Southern tropes of Tennessee Williams, and focusing on a family devoted to their biases, fried food, and football. They’re led by a narrow-minded father figure named Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) and he, we quickly see, is as mean as a boat-struck gator.
The orchid in this Southern hothouse is young Betty (Sophia Lillis), several IQ points ahead of most of her family and seeking signs of intelligent life outside the county line. As narrator, she informs us of her respect for the backward baby of the family, the titular Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) a fashion-forward, deeply closeted New York college professor who impresses Betty with his worldly ways during infrequent trips home.
Betty is so impressed with Frank, in fact, that she enrolls in his college and, after some Alice in Wonderland enforced worldliness lessons in The Big Apple, realizes that her uncle is in fact shacked up with a very hairy Saudi named Walid (Peter Macdissi) and actively leading a double life for the benefit of his faculty and their family.
Walid gets a chance to indulge his urgent need for the family unit he left in the Middle East when news arrives from Creekside, N.C. that Daddy Mac has passed and Frank and Betty are asked to return for the funeral. Much of what transpires is a Road Movie of sorts as Walid (who gleefully adopts his Southern name of “Wally”) hijacks Frank and Betty’s trip and makes them a trio as they venture Down South for the fateful reunion.
Some have been critical of Alan Ball’s screenplay and direction as our wayfarers make their way into the heart of Dixie, encountering some fervent anti-gay sentiment. Derided for being simplistic and stereotypical, the story unfolds as Frank revisits a small-town tragedy and his eventual confrontation with the bias and hatred he knows some hold for him.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and Steven Root.
Why We Liked It: It struck a chord, examining the impact of private lives on those who lead them and those walled off from them.
Quotable Quote: “Hell, I’m just glad you ain’t black…”
Available on Amazon Prime.