The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
After announcing himself as a film voice to take note of with the award-winning American Beauty, Alan Ball largely focused on television, writing and creating Six Feet Under and True Blood. Returning to the big screen as both writer and director, Ball’s Uncle Frank is a flawed, emotionally manipulative but undeniably engaging drama that you could imagine, in another time, would’ve dominated the award season. At the centre of the film is a heartbreaking turn from Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank’s likeliest shot as an awards contender) as the titular character, a gay man in the 1970’s, closeted to the majority of his family, returning home to attend the funeral of his bigoted father.
A better writer than he is director, Alan Ball evidently has an emotional investment in the story, but he occasionally drives home the melodrama a little too sternly, breaking any momentum that the quieter moments of the film achieve. The type of story Ball has created is one we’ve all seen before - both from a straight and queer perspective - and he doesn’t do much to distinguish himself from similar narrative, but his ace up his sleeve is an ensemble of incredibly competent actors that take the material and inject an air of humanity into their archetypal descriptions.
Whilst I’ll admit to shedding some serious tears towards the end of the film - this film will have much more of an emotional resonation with queer audiences - and being emotionally invested for its duration, I can’t deny that Uncle Frank’s plot is hardly groundbreaking. Mostly closeted to his family, Frank (Paul Bettany) has escaped the volatile judgement of his father (a terrifying Stephen Root) and indifference of his family and made a life for himself as a professor at a New York university. Learning of his father’s death and reluctantly going home, he takes his NY-based niece (Sophia Lillis, an absolute gem) for the ride, the two bonding as he reflects on his life and broken relationship with his father. It’s standard road-trip-cum-family drama 101.
UNCLE FRANK Is A Flawed, Emotionally Manipulative But Undeniably Engaging Drama
UNCLE FRANK (2020)
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Whatever criticisms can be aimed at Ball’s standard direction and a familiar narrative, Uncle Frank can’t be faulted from a performance perspective. Next to Bettany’s incredibly tender, natural turn as Frank (thankfully the film avoids leaning into stereotypical inflections) and Lillis’ beautiful Beth, the It actress proving her worth as a captivating screen presence, the entire ensemble equally pull their weight, even if the aforementioned earn the most prominent roles. Root is explosive in his small supporting role as Frank’s disapproving father (his closing words via his lawyer at the reading of the will are a strike to the heart), Margo Martindale asserts herself with an affection as his mother, Judy Greer makes the most as Beth’s mother with a certain joy, whilst Lois Smith succeeds as Frank’s grandmother, who clearly has love for him but can’t help but claim her prejudiced, religious views onto him. In such a cast of familiar, proven talent however, it’s Peter Macdissi (Ball’s real-life partner), predominantly a television actor, who really earns his stripes as Frank’s partner, with the film itself working that much more because of his presence.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
A mix of period-appropriate soundtrack cuts and a quiet, but effective score - perhaps too effective as it leans into the emotional manipulation of some of the narrative beats - Nathan Barr utilises his experience in horror films (Hostel, The Boy Next Door, The Hunt) in creating a subdued, almost tense mood at times as Frank relives his tragic past.
The muted tones of its 1970’s setting play into the film’s somber mentality, with the characters and their surroundings all being presented in a very natural, unglamorous manner. There’s not much to comment on as it isn't a film driven by such aesthetics, but it doesn’t prove distracting either.
Though it travels with a few hiccups, Uncle Frank ultimately overcomes any of its predictabilities thanks to Ball’s earnest intentions and emotional dedication. Bettany is simply luminous as Frank, creating a fully realised character out of what could’ve been an archetypal profile, driving a very effective heartfelt beat underneath a familiar cavity.
Amazon Studios will release UNCLE FRANK on PRIME VIDEO (11.25.20)