Director: Alan Ball
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer
There have been movies on funerals, the recent one being Mangesh Joshi’s Tokyo Film Festival entry, Ashes on a Road Trip. Earlier, the 1998 Cannes title, Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train, was another which explored how mourners went berserk blurting out unpleasant secrets. Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank, written and directed by the man who scripted that excellent American Beauty (helmed by Sam Mendes), Alan Ball, is also about a funeral, based in the early 1970s. It talks about an American family whose extremely conservative ideas impede the freedom of Frank’s (Paul Bettany) sexual preference. There is a scene in which a husband and wife are discussing this with the man saying that even the Bible is against homosexuality. The woman interjects to say that the Bible had also said that slavery was not wrong, and for the large family living in the American South, this may have been very relevant. What was incredible in all of this was that women even in that era seemed more adaptable and progressive than men.
Beth Bleshoe (Sophia Lillis) is just 14, part of a large family which has made a small Carolina town its home, and she is rearing to break free of her shackled existence. And her most favourite uncle, Frank, who teaches literature at New York University, comes visiting his family on rare occasions. He is considered a black sheep, and on one such visit of his, he tells Beth to follow her heart and create her own identity, rather than giving in to the wishes of others.
Beth takes this to heart and four years later, lands in the same university. She gradually understands why Frank has kept himself away from home. He is gay, and his partner is a Saudi, Walid, aka Wally (Peter Macdissi).
Somewhat autobiographical as Ball contended, Uncle Frank gets on to the fast track, when a death in the family necessitates a reunion. Frank and Beth take the road, and the trip gets complicated when Wally follows them and insists that his partner of 10 years may need him at this emotionally distressing moment. It seems like all hell breaking loose when the will of the dead man, Frank’s father, in fact, is read out by the family lawyer. It seems awfully cruel what the old man had to say about his son.
Handsomely produced with marvellous period detailing and lensing by Khalid Mohtaseb, Uncle Frank is nicely layered. Frank’s character is written with a sense of feeling, and his boyhood tragedy is presented as a lifelong sorrow, affecting, in a way, even his relationship with Wally. Bettany is superb as the troubled guy whose homosexuality has to be kept under wraps. The one person who understands him is his young niece, essayed with hesitant pluck by Lillis. She brings out the dilemma of growing up at a time when women were expected to fuss around the kitchen! Completing the duo is Macdissi, who infuses into his character a kind of happy garrulousness — spreading cheer all around that effectively contrasts with Frank’s quiet demeanour.