While their big-screen outings have stalled financially (the solid Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon couldn’t connect with audiences after sizable Sundance acquisitions), Amazon has established itself as a premier voice in auteur-driven cinema. Their willingness to support a diverse cornucopia of filmmakers allows these commercially-unfriendly offerings to thrive outside of traditional means. The streaming juggernaut is now showcasing Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball’s latest Uncle Frank, a character-driven tale that lands with emotional authenticity.
Set in 1973, Uncle Frank follows Beth (Sophia Lillis), a college student living in New York alongside her marginalized Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). When the family’s patriarch (Stephen Root) passes away, the two road trip to their hometown, with Frank bringing alongside his previously-undisclosed boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi).
Uncle Frank rests its laurels on the assured cast. After years stuck inside the Vision prosthetics, it’s a pleasure to see Paul Bettany tap into a grounded role onscreen. As the intellectually-driven Frank, Bettany tackles the character’s lingering demons with emotional weight, utilizing a cutting wit to mask his deeply-seated trauma. When the film asks Bettany to expose his subdued emotions, the actor displays a well-dialed cadence that never feels artificial. Sophia Lillis continues to shine as a promising up-and-comer, while Peter Macdissi forms a lived-in pairing with Bettany onscreen. Ball’s film operates at its peak when the actors are at their most intimate, expressing the fear and repression behind the character’s LGBTQ identity.
While sleight in its narrative construction, Uncle Frank’s emotional resonance speaks to a generational struggle for acceptance. The oppressive historical context further extenuates the film’s vital conceits, with Ball and company crafting this exceedingly relevant struggle with the utmost sincerity. As a writer/director, Ball’s deft hand allows the tender emotional beats to register without ever drifting towards mawkishly insincere territory. I am glad the material conveys real-world steaks without being overly-glum. Under all the dramatic tension, Ball’s warmly-drawn core emits a genuine impact.
Uncle Frank‘s pleasant appeals are ultimately limited by its mannered delivery. Ball’s second film comfortably rests upon familiar filmmaking devices, relying upon an over-earnest score and a relatively flat shot selection. It all feels oddly staged at times. I wish Ball broke down the traditional devices to create his own visceral voice onscreen.
While limited in its impact, Uncle Frank is a well-tempered detour through familial drama. It likely won’t stand the test of time like Ball’s previous efforts, but it will make for an agreeable drama for streaming audiences.
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