The old clichÃ©, "It's the not the destination, it's the journey," lies at the heart of every road trip movie. The open road embodies the character's journey as they try to tear away from all constraints, be it social, political or cultural. The road trip movie is not just a travelogue, but often doubles as an inner journey towards self-discovery.
In Uncle Frank, the road trip literalises a gay man's journey as he comes to terms with his past, and comes out to his estranged family in 1970s South Carolina.
Alan Ball (creator of Six Feet Under) co-opts the road trip movie in this breezy comedy-drama, where the coming out story is told through the mindful eyes of a teen coming of age. Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), a 14-year-old living in a small town in South Carolina, has always been in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). A warm, slo-mo sequence and voice-over cast light on why she puts him on a pedestal: he loves her like a parent, relates to her like a brother, listens to her like a friend, and inspires her to be her best self like a teacher.
Speaking of, Frank is a New York University (NYU) professor: a cultured, sensitive, and aspirational figure for Beth. Yet, she can't figure out why he's become a he-who-shan't-be-named figure in the family. Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) is the Bledsoe patriarch. Living under his oppressive shadow are Beth's grandma, Mammaw (Margo Martindale), her parents Mike (Steve Zahn) and Kitty (Judy Greer), and an extended family of supportive and intolerable aunts. Beth can't identify with anyone but Frank.
Sophia Lillis as Beth Bledsoe
On turning 18, Beth leaves the countryside to enrol at NYU, where she soon discovers her uncle has carefully hidden his homosexuality all his life. She accepts him forthwith, and learns of his life with long-time companion Wally (Peter Macdissi). Mid-way through a conversation about their pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck, what could have been a warmhearted comedy makes a swift U-turn to tragedy. A phone call about the sudden death of Daddy Mac forces Frank to return home for the funeral, with Beth and Wally in tow. What could have been a warmhearted comedy makes a swift U-turn to tragedy.
Frank grew up in a household where his homosexuality was condemned as "a sickness" and "a perversion" by his father. Ball illustrates how words can be as traumatic as physical violence. They can leave scars that last a lifetime. Flashbacks retrace Frank's adolescence, and a tragedy that estranged him from his father. The shame and guilt he carries on account of it has indelibly marked his life. The death of his father thus allows him to confront himself, and heal the wounds of his father's words. Bettany externalises the self-disgust accumulated over a lifetime of hiding your true self to your family. It's an unassuming performance which conveys the life he's lived before he even says a word.
In the same boat as Frank is Wally. Coming from a Saudi Arabian family, he too is forced to live a lie, in constant fear of being found out by his family. Having fled a country which beheads homosexuals, he allows his parents to believe he's married to a woman. This shared pain is enough for Bettany and Macdissi's chemistry to shine through. They are helped by a charming performance from Lillis, who uncovers the emotional truth beneath the often affected dialogue. Wally and Beth are the glue holding Frank together on the cathartic journey home. They are the ones who help him finally turn the page. But Ball can only see them as means to a predictable end, forcing them to the periphery for most of the final act.
Following many detours, which includes an alcohol relapse, there's little gas left by the time we arrive at the all-too-convenient conclusion.
When Daddy Mac reveals Frank's homosexuality to the whole family in his will, you sense the inner turmoil of being forced to face judgment by one's own family. The Bledsoes, who hide their homophobia and racism behind their Southern niceness, reform themselves in an instant, as if it is ever that easy. Earlier in the film, Wally talks about how "nice always hides something" and "hat's hidden is what's interesting." But we don't get to see is what's hiding beneath the niceness or the root of these prejudices, which we might have were this a series. The route Ball takes is well-intentioned but ill-conceived, one that undermines his message.
Ball's message is another old clichÃ© about accepting and loving yourself before others accept and love you. He intends Uncle Frank to be a heartwarming cry for courage and compassion. Be it 1976 or 2020, many who grew up in conservative households will certainly identify with Frank's story. Beth's point-of-view also ensures the story connects with the collective heart of a larger audience. The film makes for a credible snapshot of a time and place, which act as a sobering reminder of the continuing reality of many households around the world. However, Ball plays it too safe to leave a lasting impression. That the man who gave us one of TV's greatest couples in David and Keith could grind out such a vanilla drama is hard to imagine.
Uncle Frank is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.