Written and directed by Alan Ball for Amazon Studios and with Paul Bettany‘s heartfelt interpretation at the helm, Uncle Frank tells a coming out story that is far from the optimistic progress of the last few years but reminds us of the consequences of a suffering that many still have to face today.
Set in the 70s, Uncle Frank follows the car trip of a gay literature professor who, together with his teenage niece Beth, goes back from New York to his childhood home in Creekville in South Carolina for his father’s funeral. Frank’s tragic past and Beth’s hopeful expectation will force both to reconsider their place in the world and in the family.
Uncle Frank – Review
After a December full of new LGBTQ+ love stories over a festive and joyful background like Happiest Season, Uncle Frank brings to the screen a story that seems to shy from the narrative progress of contemporary queer representation and that might make one wonder whether it be necessary or useful to rehash the old wounds of coming out.
The trailer for Uncle Frank presents a story seen through the eyes of the young Beth. Even though the main storyline of the movie is set around the titular character, Frank to be precise, the ingenuity of Beth’s point of view is the right window into a story that might not have been the same had it been told through Frank’s own eyes.
Sophia Lillis, who plays Beth Bledsoe and who you’ll recognise from her role as Beverly Marsh in IT (2017) and IT – Chapter Two (2019), introduces us to a young girl from the Deep South of the United States who grew up in a small environment but has big dreams. Her relationship with her uncle Frank, in particular, lets her take a look toward a future that goes far beyond the expectations of what one would usually call the Apple Pie Life and which would expect her to be married and with children by the time she’s twenty.
Frank (played by Paul Bettany), on the other hand, immediately takes the role in the story as the black sheep of the family. Beth, the youngest in the house and for that reason not taken seriously by the other members, seems to develop a particular attachment to him for this reason too. Frank, despite his role, is presented as possibly the most sensitive person on the screen. He’s the epitome of the understanding uncle on whom all the nieces and nephews who need it can count and it is exactly like that that he relates and develops his relationship with Beth. He’s the one to convince the young woman not to be ashamed of wanting more from her life and it is immediately obvious that something has been left unsaid behind his kindness.
The entire movie is shrouded in a feeling of secrecy that pervades the story through flashbacks of Frank’s past and that explains his reluctance to come out even after the person who most caused him suffering about it, his father, has died and won’t ever again have the power to reopen and deepen those wounds that Frank tried to leave behind when he left his family home.
It is through that past that Frank gets on a path of finally being able to face his sexuality without shame. Even though the story depicted in Uncle Frank seems an ancient one that isn’t needed anymore in a cinema landscape full of progress when it comes to LGBTQ+ stories and experiences, the hidden trauma in the story and the way it depicts the violence that queer people have to face before, during, and after coming out is a stark reminder that these experiences are still depressingly common even today.
The act of coming out
Uncle Frank frames coming out for what it is and always will be for all the queer people that haven’t done it yet: a violation.
It’s interesting to consider that Uncle Frank and Happiest Season are two LGBTQ+ stories released on the exact same day and with such differing – and even opposite – views on the experience of coming out. John‘s speech in Happiest Season gives a clear and accurate description of all that follows the act of coming out. It’s an experience that tends to differ for every queer person. Some are fortunate enough to receive a positive reaction; others have been disowned by their family; there are positive and negative experiences on a spectrum as wide as the world. What Uncle Frank talks about, meanwhile, is the moment that comes before, when coming out is still a huge unknown.
Right at that moment, in fact, the LGBTQ+ experience seems to be the same for everyone. Before coming out, the fear of the reaction is the same even when one is certain that the people around them will be welcoming and understanding. That exact fear is the core of Uncle Frank and it is the consequences of that fear that the movie wants to depict.
Sure, Frank has very valid reasons for hesitating, as we see from the flashbacks into his past, but the consequences of his reluctance are universal beyond the deep trauma that he has had to live.
Coming out today
With its story that seems to be only a testament of the past, Uncle Frank lets us take another look at what it means to be in the closet not only for the person trapped there but also for those they love.
Frank is surrounded on one side by the fear of rejection and one the other by the encouragement given to him not only by Beth, who sees in Frank’s courage a confirmation of the possibilities of her life, but by his partner too. Walid or Wally (played by Peter Macdissi) is a reflection of what Frank tries to be for Beth. Understanding, loving, generous, he tries to be there for him when he feels like Frank needs to know that he’s not alone, which is also what Frank tries to tell Beth at the beginning of the movie.
When Frank can’t find the courage of coming out in himself, however, he ends up hurting both. Wally because he refuses his compassion thinking he doesn’t deserve it and Beth because he shatters those promises he made her about the potential of her desires and her life.
In Uncle Frank, the family role isn’t just one of the birth family symbolised by Beth and Frank’s father, but also the one Frank finds in Wally and the friends that he and Frank have met away from their childhood.
Frank’s father, in particular, is framed right from the beginning of the movie as the most apparent source of the suffering and the trauma that the story explores. The biological family takes the initial role of the rejection while the one that Frank has chosen for himself – first of all, Wally and later on Beth when she moves to the same city as him – is the purest symbol of acceptance.
When he’s forced to leave the second to go back to the first, Frank has to face an inhuman treatment that keeps putting weight on the only person who had to suffer from the past. The movie awakens feelings of disgust, injustice, rage and does that with purpose. The moral of the movie is not that the birth family deserves to be respected just because there’s blood binding it, but rather that the only way Frank’s trauma can be overcome is after the death of the source of all his pain despite the blood that binds them, his father.
What Beth sees
Throughout all of this, Beth remains a kind of anchor for the story. She watches Frank and the courage he promised her crumble in the face of the remainder of his trauma. Beth will never be able to understand the pain of Frank’s past but through her expectations of the promises he made her, she can help Frank get back on his feet. At the same time, Frank’s story is a chance for Beth to realise that knowing she can count on his is definitely a huge help but in the end, she can only count on her own convictions for her life and she can be a turning point in the family history of trauma that she discovers through Frank.
Beth and Frank are a counterweight to the violence of the fathers, they are the refusal of letting an antiquated and painful way of thinking go on and make the family’s legacy one of suffering.
Uncle Frank has as happy of an ending as one can expect from a story like it, an ending that is completely consistent with the themes it deals with and the way it faces them. Sometimes, especially in today’s cinema landscape, that would not be enough but in this case, it can be.
Overall, Uncle Frank talks about the roots of the fear of coming out. It does so with storytelling that is at times violent and that becomes an instrument to represent at the same time a reality that is still happening and to symbolise a heritage that the LGBTQ+ community, unfortunately, still has to carry.
However, the movie also reminds us that very often pain becomes, for those who live through it, the conviction not to extend it to others, to do all in one’s power to avoid that others have to experience it. That is why we still talk about tragic coming out stories, that is why we make newer and happier ones to try and project ourselves into the future.