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Movie review: ‘Uncle Frank’ is a funny, sad, riveting, thoughtful film about family

Ed Symkus
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Sophia Lillis, Paul Bettany, and Peter Macdissi hit the road.

Writer-director-producer Alan Ball has never been one to shy away from trying to make people laugh or make them grimace or shudder or think or get caught up in emotional chaos. He also has great command of dialogue. For TV, he created and wrote “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.” His film writing credits include “Towelhead” and “American Beauty” (for which he won an Oscar).

With “Uncle Frank,” he’s conjured up all sorts of ways to have his characters and their story affect viewers, and he scores on just about every one of them. The film is being plugged as a coming of age story, but taken the way most people think of that term, it’s an inaccurate description. Yes, the protagonist is 18-year-old Beth (Sophia Lillis), who has gotten away from the grip of her “proper” South Carolina family and headed to college in 1973 New York, where she can start exploring life - start “coming of age.” But there’s a second principal protagonist, Beth’s Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a 46-year-old gay college professor who is trapped in a secretive way of life due to family-related events from his teen years. Frank is an adult who is still struggling to get past all of that and finally come of age.

Bookended by busy family gatherings at the big old Southern house - the opening one is for a birthday, the closing one is for a funeral - “Uncle Frank” tells many stories. The main ones are about the relationship between Beth and Frank (“Nobody else in my family ever seemed interested in me,” she says in a voice-over), and the one between Frank and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), a happy, caring and loving man who managed to escape homosexual persecution in his native Saudi Arabia. To a lesser degree, but of equal importance, are glimpses of and bits of insight on different members of Beth’s family: well-meaning but backward thinking younger brother Mike (Steve Zahn), sensitive mom (Margo Martindale), short-tempered homophobe dad (Stephen Root), and others.

Featuring both stern and shocking revelations as well as sparklingly funny scenes, Ball’s script has conversations that allow some characters to understand how others tick. It shifts into road trip mode when Frank’s complicated father dies and he must head back to South Carolina - and the family that doesn’t know his secret (don’t worry, he has company). And it unwaveringly delivers the message that you need to be who you are, no matter what anyone else thinks.

It’s hard to pick out a “best performance” in the film. Sophia Lillis (“It”) plays Beth with a wide-eyed curiosity and sense of adventure. Within the wonderful couple of Frank and Wally, Paul Bettany’s Frank blends feelings of being relaxed and in turmoil, and Peter Macdissi’s Wally is sweet and supportive, but also suggests, in a moment of seriousness, that there was once a line between him and Frank that must never again be crossed. In an unfortunately short amount of screen time, Stephen Root, as Daddy Mac, once again masterfully displays why he’s such an in-demand character actor.

Any lightness in the film is obliterated by long-ago thoughts in Frank’s head that are now brought to the fore by his return to the family home, and some of those scenes, presented in flashback, are traumatic to watch. As are some of the goings-on in the house, especially during the reading of Daddy Mac’s will, where the film’s dramatic impact approaches being overwhelming.

But Ball’s skill with words and storyline and direction, and his ability to balance all of that into a thoughtful, poignant, searing, and unconventional story, make “Uncle Frank” a real treat, recommended to everyone with an open mind.

“Uncle Frank” premieres on Amazon Prime on Nov. 25.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Uncle Frank”

Written and directed by Alan Ball

With Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi

Rated R