Uncle Frank review: An easy-to-love queer road trip through the deep south

(L-R) Paul Bettany and Peter Macdissi star in UNCLE FRANKPhoto: Brownie HarrisCourtesy of Amazon Studios
(L-R) Paul Bettany and Peter Macdissi star in UNCLE FRANKPhoto: Brownie HarrisCourtesy of Amazon Studios /

Thanks to a trio of excellent performances from Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, and Peter Macdissi, Uncle Frank succeeds as a sweet tale of queer love and loss set in the 1970s deep south.

Just when we’d thought that Green Book had made us sick of movies set in vintage America, where a white man and man of color are driving around the deep south trying to avoid prejudice, in swoops Uncle Frank to save the admittedly specific genre from total disdain. Although the story at times feels cliched and the script can be inelegant, Uncle Frank has three stellar leads in Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, and Peter Macdissi, whose combined star power more than makes the film’s lesser moments forgivable.

Uncle Frank follows Beth Blesdoe (Lillis), a young woman who grew up in the deep south, but who attends college in New York City. When Beth’s grandfather unexpectedly passes away, she returns home for the funeral with her Uncle Frank (Bettany), a gay literature professor who’s closeted to the majority of his family. Along for the ride is Frank’s love, Walid “Wally,” a Muslim man also living in New York. Together, the trio navigates racism, homophobia, and sexism on their journey back to Beth’s hometown, as well as tensions among themselves stemming from Frank’s own internalized homophobia and trauma from his youth.

As far as plots go, the story of Uncle Frank isn’t necessarily complicated or new. It’s a familiar story of the struggle to accept oneself when not even your family will accept you — except, in this case, significant chunks of the story are told via flashbacks to Frank’s youth. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue (Moonlight explored queer identity over different periods in a man’s life to much success), but in Uncle Frank, the pacing and structure don’t always feel right, because Frank isn’t introduced as our protagonist.

The film begins with narration from Beth’s point of view, and we spend the first act of the film watching her grow up at attend university. It isn’t until about 45 minutes in that the focus shifts and you realize that Frank is indeed the main character of the film. Which is a shame, because although Beth is a great character herself, spending all that time with her in those crucial opening minutes of the film makes it feel jarring when we suddenly change to focusing almost entirely on Frank and his emotional journey.

It’s particularly noticeable when, after getting an understanding of where the film may be taking Beth’s character, the audience is shown flashbacks from Frank’s youth, which aren’t quite as emotionally impactful as the film wants them to be. Although they do tell an objectively tragic story — one where Frank copes with the devastating loss of a lover at a young age to the rampant homophobia in his small town — we don’t really feel the emotional impact.

Not only is this because we were introduced to Beth initially and then shifted to Frank, but also because the film’s emotion is driven by its actors, not its writing. Where Bettany and Macdissi were able to make us care about Frank’s journey as an adult (and look past the poor writing), we don’t spend enough time with young Frank, nor is his actor, so the flashback scenes, unfortunately, fall flat.

The present, though, is a different story. The script has flaws, certainly. The dialogue is predictable and often trite, but as we mentioned, the performances more than make up for what would otherwise be a very dull script. It’s hard to pick a particular standout from our trio of protagonists because all three shine in their own unique ways, and to try and compare their roles is like deciding on apples over oranges.

Lillis is an impressive and capable lead as Beth Blesdoe. We only knew her as Bev in the It films, but here she’s fresh, charming, and easily able to hold her own dramatically when pitted against two older and much more experienced actors. Beth is an easy character to love, though not a particularly deep one (as we mentioned, she falls to the wayside around the 45-minute mark), and Lillis pours so much heart into the character that she feels vibrant and earnest, even if she isn’t the star of the show.

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Taking that honor is Bettany as the titular Uncle Frank. Although his southern accent may be spotty, his performance on the whole certainly isn’t. Frank is a multi-faceted character, both deeply flawed and shaken by his youth, but also a clearly intelligent and charming man. It’s easy to picture him as your favorite relative at any family gathering. He lays on the charm early in the film so that when Frank becomes disturbed and even violent near the third act, you still have compassion for him and understand where he’s coming from. It’s a difficult line to walk when you’re trying to justify or have compassion for someone reacting violently — especially as Frank does towards Wally — but Bettany’s masterful performance sells the character in a way that few actors may be able to.

Rounding out our road-tripping trio is Macdissi as Wally, Frank’s lover and a Muslim man who fled his home country to avoid the persecution of gay people. Wally is perhaps even more charismatic and instantly loveable than Frank is. He’s lighthearted with a great sense of humor and a genuine joy about him that lights up any scene where he’s present — even as a supporting player. Wally is also the film’s most empathetic character. He clearly has a huge heart, and his love for Frank is so loyal that even when his lover gets violent after a triggering incident, Wally stands his ground.

Though Wally is perhaps the film’s best written character, credit must also go to Macdissi, whose mere presence onscreen makes us want to smile. It’s easy to see why Frank fell in love with him, and why Beth was so easily accepting of him as well. He’s a difficult man not to like. He balances out Frank’s more reserved wit beautifully, and together alongside Beth, they make a winning trio of characters that we wish we could’ve spent more time with.

If anything, our biggest slight against Uncle Frank is that we didn’t get to see more of what makes the film truly shine: the dynamic between its three leads. Yes, it’s a story we’ve mostly heard before, and yes, the script has its flaws, but Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi work in perfect harmony to craft a charismatic and earnest trio of characters who we’d love to road trip with.

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Have you seen Uncle Frank? What’s your favorite movie set in the 1970s? Sound off in the comments below.