By odd coincidence, two movies are debuting on streaming platforms the day before Thanksgiving that deal with the same exact log-line: a gay person returns to a small-town family that is still in the dark about his/her orientation. “Happiest Season,” on Hulu, plays the situation for light comedy with dark (and not all that successful) trimmings. “Uncle Frank,” on Amazon, goes for drama, complex characters, and meaty performances. It’s the better option by far, and not just because it reminds a viewer of how good and underrated an actor Paul Bettany is.
Bettany plays the title character, Frank Bledsoe, a literature professor at New York University who’s happily living with longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi). The year is 1973, and Frank’s world is seen through the eyes of a beloved niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), arriving from their rural South Carolina town for her freshman year at college. Beth is at first unworldly enough to be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous suitor (Colton Ryan) but sharp enough to adjust to the revelations about her favorite uncle, and she immediately bonds with Wally, an effusive Saudi Arabian bohemian with even more to lose than Frank if he were to return home.
Frank’s family is bad enough, as we’ve seen in a prologue featuring a brutal patriarch (Stephen Root), an enabling mother (Margo Martindale), and relatives who range from trash-talking (Steve Zahn) to empathetic but clueless (Judy Greer) to bug-house crazy (Lois Smith as “Aunt Butch”). When the patriarch drops dead 15 minutes into “Uncle Frank,” the film becomes a road trip in which Frank and Beth drive south to the funeral, Frank’s nerves fraying with each mile.
Lillis (Beverly Marsh in the most recent iteration of “It”) is very good at charting Beth’s stiffening spine as she moves away from and then back toward a close-minded clan, and Macdissi makes Wally a big-hearted, funny force of nature. But “Uncle Frank” belongs to Bettany, who has been one of the best things in many movies for over two decades now — including the “Avengers” series, in which he plays Vision — while still remaining slightly anonymous. (He could pass for Benedict Cumberbatch’s accountant brother.) Frank’s sobriety, in place for years it’s implied, starts to falter as they cross the Mason-Dixon Line and painful memories involving a long-ago love (Michael Perez) flash into the movie’s slipstream. The actor establishes a character utterly at home in the cosmopolitan life he has made for himself and then shows that character’s emotional and even physical unraveling as he gets closer to the heart of his personal darkness. It’s a vanity-free performance and extremely affecting.
“Uncle Frank” has been written and directed by Alan Ball, who created TV’s “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” and wrote “American Beauty,” a best picture winner that, to put it gently, has not aged well. Ball’s first shot at directing a feature, “Towelhead” (2015), was an overambitious disaster, but in “Uncle Frank” he anchors his talent for pithy characterization and glibly memorable dialogue in an emotional landscape that feels like someone may have actually lived it. The movie rarely takes the easy way out of a scene, and the observational details can be rich: The playful meanness of a female friend (Britt Rentschler) conscripted to play Frank’s “girlfriend” in an early scene; a little boy trying on his mother’s shoes at a barbecue; the old men who can’t look Frank in the eye, afraid of what they’ll see. The cinematography by Khalid Mohtaseb strikes a balance between romanticizing the period locations and exposing their rot.
The movie’s about how fear and hatred get internalized as self-loathing, and how that self-loathing never fully disappears, no matter how many miles away a person moves or whoever he or she becomes. “Uncle Frank” is hopeful enough to suggest a healing way out of the bind and well-crafted enough to get a viewer to believe it. Maybe that’s enough to get us through the holidays.
Written and directed by Alan Ball. Starring Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi. Available on Amazon. 95 minutes. R (language, some sexual references, drug use)