Writer/Director Alan Ball, the man behind the Academy Award Best Picture winner, ‘American Beauty,’ and HBO’s wildly popular shows ‘Six Feet Under,’ and ‘True Blood,’ brings us the story of a teenaged girl named Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) getting to know her ‘Uncle Frank,’ played exceptionally well by Paul Bettany.
She loves him so much that she moves from her rural South Carolina hometown to attend New York University, where Frank is a literature professor. He’s admired so much he’s pretty well put on a pedestal by everyone, especially his niece. Frank isn’t aware of this, but since she’s known him, Beth has to his every word. He has always been the only person who ever cared about what she had to say, interacting with her on an intellectual level. Everyone else just treated her like a child. She loved it when he came to visit, which wasn’t very often, sadly. After spending more time with him and getting to know him better, she finds out why that is, especially when it came to ‘Daddy Mac,’ Frank’s father, a somewhat nefarious character given to Stephen Root to perform. You’ve never seen him like this before. A bit of trivia for you is that this movie is partly based on Alan Ball’s birth father. Keep that in mind while watching. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s four years later. Our story is set in the 1970s, and little Beth, now eighteen, is still as naïve and innocent as they come. She has never had a boyfriend or any real-world experience, yet here she is, moving to the biggest city in the country. Surprisingly, it doesn’t intimidate her one bit. Due to Frank’s influence, Beth’s thoroughly put together and relatively smart for such a young woman. She meets a young man named Bruce, played by Colton Ryan. Bruce is interested in taking Frank’s class on 19th Century women writers. Finding out Beth is his niece, he hopes for an introduction. That’s not all he wants.
Beth accidentally overhears there’s going to be a party at Frank’s house. She takes Bruce with her, and they make an uninvited pop-in. This doesn’t go over very well, but at least she gets to finally meet Frank’s roommate, Wally, affectionately portrayed by Peter Macdissi. In a loving scene, Frank comes out to his niece. Wally isn’t his roomie, but his lover of many years. They met on the subway after Frank had seen ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ They get to talking when Wally, who has a pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck, tells Frank that he’s from Saudi Arabia. The rest is history.
Speaking of history, Frank’s father, ‘Daddy Mac,’ dies, so Frank and Beth head down for the funeral. Knowing that Frank isn’t as strong as he fools everyone into believing he is, Wally wants to go with them. Aware of something that has happened in Frank’s past, he wants to be there for support. This idea isn’t welcome. Though at the time, America is becoming more accepting of people who are gay, in the south, they’ll still arrest you for it. Frank’s family would never receive him if he came out. It hurts Wally because one thing he wants more than anything is family. He wants what he could never have in Saudi Arabia. There, you’d be beheaded or hanged for being gay.
Due to an issue, they drive instead of fly, which gives the two family members time to get to know one another. She’s inquisitive, and to fill the void, she asks a lot of penetrating questions. Through this, we learn who he is, as well. There are a series of ghastly flashbacks that examine, in great detail, what happened between Frank and his father. Because of certain events, Frank left for New York only to return when absolutely necessary. When he did go home, his father wasn’t difficult to avoid. Mostly because he no longer wanted anything to do with his son.
At one point on the drive, Frank realizes they’re not alone. A car is following them. Nervous but wanting to find out what’s going on, he pulls over, and the other car does, too. Guess who has been following them? Someone refused to take no for an answer! Wally. He wants to be there for Frank as Frank had been there for him when he needed his strength. Frank is both happy and upset that Wally is with him, fearing his family will find out the truth about him, something he’d prefer not address at this juncture of his life. So, with some strict rules put in place, the three of them continue south.
As they travel, more is revealed about Frank. It’s announced that Frank had had a drinking problem and has even been abusive toward Wally when it was at its worst. This comes up because as his hometown draws near, the memories haunt him so much that only drinking can suppress the choking pain that begins strangling the life out of him.
I don’t want to divulge much more except to say that what happens when they reach their destination really ramps up the drama. The very beginning of the film was slow, but when Wally reaches them on the road, the movie gets much more interesting and continues doing so until the very end.
Frank has a good talk with his brother Mike (Steve Zahn), in a touching scene, of which there are several. Bettany is outstanding when he’s given no choice but to admit who he truly is. Frank has fought this with every cell of his body and breaks down when faced with the inevitable. These scenes are deeply moving, mostly since he plays off of a remarkably talented ensemble cast to propel the story beyond what you thought it could be. See this asap! You must try and get all Oscar films in before award season, of which this will appear.
*Opens today exclusively on Amazon Prime!
Director: Alan Ball
Writer: Alan Ball
Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Stephen Root, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Lois Smith
Run Time: 1h 35m