“Uncle Frank,” written and directed by Alan Ball, is about a gay man forced by circumstances to come out to his conservative, homophobic family. At its best, the film condemns bigotry movingly and presents relationship dynamics engagingly. But at the same time, Southern-baked cliches dominate the picture.
Ball, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “American Beauty” and wrote and directed “Towelhead,” combines a breezy road tale with a family melodrama in this feel-good dramedy streaming on Amazon Prime.
Paul Bettany, whose central performance lifts the movie above the middling mark, plays Frank Bledsoe, a middle-aged New York University literature professor bred in a narrow-minded South Carolina town.
Ball introduces Frank at a 1969 family gathering where Frank is conversing with 14-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), the movie’s narrator and Frank’s biggest fan. Frank tells Beth that she can do whatever she wants in life.
Four years later, Beth, now a New York University freshman, visits Frank and discovers that he is gay and has a longtime partner named Wally (Peter Macdissi). A Saudi immigrant, Wally, too, hides his homosexuality from his family.
Where Wally comes from, being gay is punishable by beheading.
The road tale takes off with the kind of incident that generally launches such movie trips: a family death. Frank’s harsh, controlling father, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), has expired, and Frank and Beth drive south for the funeral. Wally, instructed by Frank to stay home — Frank doesn’t want his family to know about Wally — stealthily follows Frank and Beth, believing that Frank will need him for emotional support. Though his method of joining the trip is ridiculous, his concern appears warranted.
The anxiety of a family reunion causes Frank, a long-sober alcoholic, to start drinking again. Frank also begins experiencing rushes of memory, conveyed with flashbacks, of a teenhood romance with a male schoolmate. Frank’s father quashed the relationship with a harshness that led to a tragedy that Frank has long tried to psychologically bury.
Even from the grave, Frank’s father torments Frank, and the resulting scenario forces Frank to come out to his family.
The New York scenes feature winningly natural interactions between Frank and Wally, who share a friendly, comfortable home with a lizard called Rita Hayworth. The sequences featuring Beth, though the capable Lillis deserves more-interesting material, feel similarly genuine.
The film’s embrace of acceptance and personal expression and condemnation of intolerance and hateful parenting reflect Ball’s noble aims. One wonders what Frank would be like if he’d had Michael Stuhlbarg’s understanding “Call Me By Your Name” character instead of Daddy Mac for a father.
Unfortunately, though, the South Carolina material lacks such merit.
The family members, played by accomplished actors — Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Lois Smith, Steve Zahn — are Southern stereotypes who receive brief opportunities to demonstrate their newfound open-mindedness. Ball rushes these moments toward an artificially sweetened conclusion.
Frank’s teenhood flashbacks play like mere dramatic devices.
Bettany, who stole “Master and Commander” from Russell Crowe and took the so-so “Creation” and “The Young Victoria” to higher places, portrays Frank splendidly. Whether the actor is tearing up at a graveside, or multifacetedly revealing the traumatized man beneath Frank’s sophisticated New York demeanor, he’s captivating.
Macdissi’s funny, warm and emotionally authentic Wally is crucial to the film’s successful aspects.
Starring: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Margo Martindale
Written and directed by: Alan Ball
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
“Zappa,” directed by Alex Winter, celebrates the art and legacy of rock musician, avant-garde composer, performance artist, political voice, trade ambassador for the Czech Republic, and father of four Frank Zappa, and you don’t need to be a Zappa fan to appreciate this documentary.
Benefiting from archival access that wasn’t available to the makers of the 2016 doc “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words,” the film (opening Friday in theaters and on demand) features exceptional performance and interview clips as it presents, both chronologically and kaleidoscopically, the life and career of Zappa (1940-1993), beginning with his childhood (Zappa’s father worked at a plant where the chemicals were so dangerous that those living nearby had to wear gas masks). Winter also covers Zappa’s early Mothers of Invention years, Laurel Canyon gatherings, groupie period, “Saturday Night Live” appearance (Zappa thought the skits terribly unfunny), and participation in government hearings on parental-advisory record ratings.
To his credit, Winter hasn’t made an adulatory portrait of his subject.
While praising Zappa’s brilliance, interviewees — fellow musicians and Zappa’s widow, Gail Zappa — describe Zappa as an artist so obsessed with achieving perfection that he could be disdainful to those who loved and faithfully served him. Daughter Moon had to slip a letter under his door to get him to spend time with her on the material that would give rise to his only hit, “Valley Girl.”
The sum total is a justifiably sprawling and almost never dull consideration of a unique and complicated artist.
With: Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa
Directed by: Alex Winter
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes