20 years ago, he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film was ‘American Beauty‘. This year, Alan Ball‘s film ‘Uncle Frank‘ was released (streaming on Amazon Prime Video since November). He has not only written it but directed and co-produced too.
‘American Beauty’ was a black comedy-drama about the midlife crisis of a man. The film was fun to watch but not easy to interpret. Even critics were not in agreement in their readings. Because beneath the exterior of sexuality, the film attempted to uncover various mysterious facets of humanity, leaving it open to interpretations.
Uncle Frank has a sad subtlety to it as it underlines the deep-seated, crude prejudices of our society that are sometimes difficult to escape and harsh to confront. The parochial norms infringe on personal liberties, imposing themselves on the people to either conform or perish.
The film is a perspective of a 14-year-old girl Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), and Frank (Paul Bettany) is her uncle, so the movie is named ‘Uncle Frank’.
Frank is a professor in New York City. He is smart and serene, well-read and well-mannered, progressive and permissive. Beth wants to be like him, to see the world. He encourages her to study and realise her dream. That is how the movie opens when their old fashioned family meets for a party. And the girl, growing up in the South Carolina household back in 1969, fails to gauge why her grandfather disapproved of her uncle.
Four years later, an 18-year-old Beth lands in New York City for higher studies and gets to know that her uncle is a gay. Soon, Daddy Mac (Stephan Root playing Frank’s father) dies of cardiac failure, and they take a road journey back home to attend his funeral.
Three of them together, Beth, Frank and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) set out for the south. And the trip unravels episodes from the past that have been haunting Frank for years. New York has been a refuge for him, far away from the small-town oppressing life.
After the funeral, Daddy Mac’s will reveals the secret that Frank so far had shared with his sister only. His father had disowned him for being gay. He said all his life he had been ashamed of his son. Daddy Mac had found him with his boyfriend during his teenage.
Humiliated by the wording of the will, Frank Bledsoe breaks down. His worst nightmare had come true. He expected his father to accept him as he is.
The announcement aggravates his agony, opens his old wound. He had always blamed himself for the death of his boyfriend, who had drowned himself after he broke up with him, heeding to his father’s sinister warning. Daddy Mac’s last words goad him to end his life. But Wally and Beth save him.
It would be unfair to compare ‘Uncle Frank’ with ‘American Beauty’. But both movies have their messages loud and clear. In this 1 hour 35 minutes film, Paul Bettany stands out with his layered performance. Peter Macdissi, who has also co-produced the film, has done justice to his role, playing Frank’s partner and an immigrant from Saudi Arabia.