Movie Review: Paul Bettany’s subtlest turn ever is “Uncle Frank”

Willowy thin, reserved, refined and ever-so-English, it’s no great stretch to imagine Paul Bettany as a closeted gay academic, a well-mannered Southerner much-adored by that one member of his family he sees curiosity and potential in — his niece.

That on-the-nose casting anchors “Uncle Frank” in authenticity, even if it’s a period piece trafficking in gay culture nostalgia and Southern Gothic tropes straight out of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

Oscar winner Alan Ball (“American Beauty”) wrote and directed this sentimental, soft and sometimes stinging story of family and the open wounds it can leave you with, especially if you were gay and raised in the rural South of the 1950s.

Betty (Sophia Lillis of “It”) is our “To Kill a Mockingbird” narrator here, the niece who looked forward to her uncle’s “rare visits” from New York because “No one else in my family seemed interested in me…He was the only adult I knew who looked me straight in the eye.”

Uncle Frank was quiet at those late ’60s/early’70s family gatherings, listening, smoking and greeted with barely-veiled hostility by his bullying father, Daddy Mac. Stephen Root plays this loud, violent tyrant like the Faulknerian villain he is — king of the working class fiefdom of his family in Creekville, S.C.

Screeching, manic grandkids get a bellowing “I’ll whip you BOTH with my handsaw!” threat.

Betty, who hates that pedestrian name, has little in common with her chipper but fearful mother (Judy Greer, perfect) and beer-swilling lump of a dad (Steve Zahn, spot-on). Grandma (Margo Martindale) makes a show of keeping the peace, and Aunt Butch (Lois Smith) is so old that you have to take her tactless cluelessness and occasional burst of intolerance in stride.

But Uncle Frank? He’s out on the back porch, smoking. He questions Betty’s ambitions, hopes. He encourages a change of name and change of scene, eventually (she’s 14 when we meet her), warning her — even at 14 — about “ruining” her life by becoming pregnant. Getting out of Creekville taught him, and will teach her “not only how small this world is, but how much bigger it could become.”

Betty, as she transforms to Beth, moves to New York to enroll at NYU, where Uncle Frank teaches. She meets a boy, takes a few shots at imposing herself on Uncle Frank and stumbles, in her provincial small-town Southern way, onto his “secret.”

That flamboyant “girlfriend” (Britt Rentschler) he introduced Beth’s family to? Someday, she’ll know to refer to her as a “beard.” That sweet, gushing foreign fellow, Wally (Peter Macdissi), short for Walid? He’s a lot more than a “roommate.”

No sooner has Beth sobered-up from her first-ever gay NYC apartment party in pre-AIDS New York when Daddy Mac dies. Wally and Beth have to nag Frank into attending the funeral, a road trip of comic, soul-searching and discriminatory potential.

Because Frank has his reasons for not wanting to go. Wally is hellbent on “being there” for him, despite their shared secret. It’s not like the Saudi expat Wally could “come out” back home, not without “beheading.” But he’s never taken a road trip Down South.

Frank chainsmokes and quietly fumes about the world he has to go back to just to avoid “breaking your mother’s heart.” And he aches at the wounds the trip will reopen.

Bettany is the quiet sun that all these other planets revolve around. His screen baggage, playing sensitive characters capable of inner steel and the odd burst of fury, makes this role tailor-made for him. And you know how the Brits love to sling Southern accents.

“You look lahk you b’long in a 1950s BAH-bull movie,” he drawls, the perfect come-on to his Middle Eastern lover.

Lillis has a wondrous open-faced innocence about her that makes her the ideal tour guide, the person discovering Frank’s world so that we can discover it, too.

Veteran character actor Macdissi has nothing on his resume (“Six Feet Under,” “True Blood,” “Towelhead” and “Three Kings”) that would suggest the warm, all-embracing force of love and nature that Wally is. He’s playing a gay “type,” to some degree. But playing the hell out of it makes him the film’s burst of light, every time he pops on screen.

Ball’s script has a deadpan awareness of its subject matter– gay “types,” rural Southern archetypes, matriarchs/patriarchs, beer and football, the occasional Southernism not meant to be intolerant, but which most assuredly is.

Frank is “a backward baby” Aunt Butch opines in a sort of country midwife code. And that self-described “dirty Jew” “secret” girlfriend Frank passes off to younger brother Mike, Beth’s dad?

“Hell, I’m just glad you ain’t Black!” It takes a Steve Zahn to let that line work.

I can’t say “Uncle Frank” held much in the way of surprises, because it doesn’t. It’s one of those scripts where you wonder if the writer thinks of the South as frozen in “Streetcar” era New Orleans, where all the smart kids of “Mockingbird” Alabama or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi gravitated to.

The road trip and its melodramatic conclusion literarily feels like one Faulkner and Williams dreamed up over cocktails in Key West, casting Harper Lee’s Scout to narrate it.

Which is to say, it’s not something that will be to every taste. But if you’re into Sleepy Time Down South cliches, it goes down like that first mint julep of spring — refreshing and redolent of a time thankfully past, but for all its ugliness, formative in ways that only passing years make clear.

MPA Rating: R for language, some sexual references and drug use

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and Steven Root.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Alan Ball. An Amazon release.

Running time: 1:31

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