Growing up an only child, besides my parents, my family consisted of uncles, an aunt and grandparents. There was nothing remarkable about my family, we were blue-collar and living the American dream. But like most families there were quiet things we didn’t talk about and even some things that only now that I’m much older I get. Faith and going to church were part of my family’s belief system, although in her waning days my grandmother cast aspersions against and regretted Catholicism. I also think that many families hid skeletons in their closets rather than confront or deal with something that made them uncomfortable.
This week I watched the film “Uncle Frank” and it is a great character study with a complex cast looking at the dynamics of one family and the secret one member has kept from them. The star of the film is actor Paul Bettany, who up until now was really only recognizable for playing the android “Vision” in the Marvel films. Here, he plays the oldest sibling of a South Carolina family.
Set in the early ‘70s, the film establishes early that Frank’s father (Stephen Root), is bigoted and set in his ways. His granddaughter Beth (Sophia Lillis), however, yearns to get out of this backwater town and not be looked at like a hick. Uncle Frank (Bettany) broke out long ago and lives in New York City. She looks up to him and is intrigued by his cool, calm exterior. Eventually she goes off to New York City herself for college. She discovers Frank’s secret about the same time he receives a phone call that his dad has passed away. They decide to make the drive south and, in the process, learn things about themselves that will help shape both of their futures. For Frank in particular it’s coming to terms with his past.
There is a lot to like about this film; first and foremost is Bettany as Uncle Frank. As recently displayed in the second episode of the new Disney+ series “Wandavision,” Bettany is a very versatile actor and in possession of some great comedy chops. But he also pulls off a pretty good southern drawl and comes off as a very debonair and charming guy. Being paired with the young actress Sophia Lillis only compliments his performance. She of course was excellent a couple of years ago in “It.” She strikes the right tone between naïve and blossoming independent woman. Stephen Root as the patriarch has really mastered playing a curmudgeon and crotchety old guy and really presses everyone’s buttons here.
The film really hits its stride in the last 40 minutes once Frank’s secret comes out and his siblings and relatives have to come to terms with it. It’s during this timeframe that you find yourself reflecting on relationships in your own family and how something similar to this may have affected you on a personal level, or created divisions or animosity between relatives.
This film had some depth and teeth to it and wasn’t afraid to address the elephant in the room or go into some deeper, darker territory regarding Frank’s past. It’s always refreshing to have a film that makes you question your own internal belief system and biases.
The movie, streaming now on Amazon Prime, is rated R.