Alan Ball will probably always be known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the 1999 hit American Beauty, though he saw his original script curtailed in the edit, and its themes of identity and sexuality made more opaque than he intended. His subsequent work has tended to focus on repression, sexuality and guilt, and so it proves again with this fervently personal movie.
Sophia Lillis plays Betty, a shy, smart teenage girl growing up in an old-fashioned southern household in the early 1970s. She idolises her smart uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), an unmarried, unconventional guy who left home to become a literature professor in New York, and who always inspired her love of books. When Betty comes to New York as a student, she reconnects with Uncle Frank but, innocent country mouse that she is, Betty is baffled by Uncle Frank having a “roommate”: Walid, played by Ball’s partner and one of the movie’s co-producers Peter Macdissi.
Betty gradually comes to realise that her witty, urbane, kindly uncle carries an awful burden of pain because of his relations with his father – her grandfather – “Daddy Mac”, played by Stephen Root as a crocodile of reactionary hostility. As with so many movies of this kind, some of the interest lies in wondering how the writer has transformed elements of his own life and family experiences: how much of Ball is in Betty and how much in Frank?
Uncle Frank doesn’t have the witty indirectness of American Beauty or Ball’s TV classic Six Feet Under, but it has a strong and very convincing performance from Bettany. The excellent Margo Martindale also has a small part as Frank’s mother, though she has little to do. It’s a shame that the only good role she’s had recently has been on the Netflix animation BoJack Horseman.
Uncle Frank is on Amazon Prime Video.