It’s been a while, Alan Ball. Nestled nicely into TV in recent years, it’s a welcome return to the big screen for the acclaimed writer/director. Hitting big with the double whammy of American Beauty and the extraordinary television series Six Feet Under either side of the millennium – with True Blood and Here and Now taking up his time in recent years – Ball has been quite purposeful with his output, wisely choosing to give himself some room to manoeuvre rather than taking on a multitude of projects.
He returns now in both writer and director chairs with Uncle Frank, his first feature film in 13 years (with some TV movies in that time) and it’s lovely to have him back even if this isn’t quite premium Ball. Set in 1973, Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany) is a college professor in New York, detached from his large family in South Carolina due in no small part to his fractured relationship with his father (Stephen Root) who may, or may not, know about his sexuality and his secret life.
Venomously against such blasphemy, Frank has found some peace with his life in New York and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), as well as his burgeoning relationship with his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) who he takes under his wing before they are all summoned home on the news of his father’s passing. But Frank is still scared of his family’s reaction, made even more fraught by his first relationship from his teenage years, one that left an indelible mark on him that he fears he will never shake.
As with most of Ball’s work, his characters are unique and fully-fleshed, bouncing off the screen with poise, wit and humanity with some pithy and insightful dialogue that makes them charming and affable, and their stories resonate strongly. There’s nothing particularly new about the narrative on show here, but in Ball’s capable hands the journey feel fresh, helped along by two dazzling lead turns from Bettany and Lillis, both giving award-worthy performances.
What ultimately lets the film down, however, is its final act which, after an hour or so of some thoughtful and truly moving moments, feels forced and a little too neat, almost as if it’s from a different film altogether. The catharsis that follows feels disingenuous and too fairy tale like to match what has gone before; it’s lovely that the a third act should feel compelled to go to such lengths but with the first two feeling raw, this feels like a race to the finish line without truly dealing with what transpires. A more honest, realistic representation here would have seen the film soar; as it is, it only half does, thanks in no small part to Bettany and Lillis’ wonderful turns.
Drama | USA, 2020 | 15 | Sundance London Virtual Festival | Amazon Prime Video (UK November) |Dir.Alan Ball | Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi