“You’re gonna be the person you decide to be, or you’re gonna be the person everyone tells you you are. You get to choose.” So says Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany), a closeted gay NYU professor and recovering alcoholic who will struggle to live up to those words spoken to his adoring 14-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) at the start of “Uncle Frank,” a finely acted, often deeply emotional period piece that, despite its share of strong moments, stacks the deck too much for its own dramatic good.
Writer-director Alan Ball (“American Beauty,” “Six Feet Under”), who based the film on several threads from his own family past, takes an earnest and tender yet sometimes forced approach to a story whose smart and involving first act gives way to a more pro forma, familiar final hour.
A 1969-set prologue introduces us to Frank’s noisy South Carolina family during a birthday party for his monstrous, simmeringly homophobic father, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). The group includes Frank’s bustling, kindly mother, Mammaw (Margo Martindale); Daddy Mac’s loopy spinster sister, Florence, a.k.a. “Aunt Butch” (Lois Smith); Frank’s short-fused brother, Mike (Steve Zahn); Mike’s fretful wife, Kitty (Judy Greer); and Frank’s knowing sister, Neva (Jane McNeill).
From this evocatively shot setup it’s clear that Frank, who’s visiting from Manhattan, doesn’t quite belong in this provincial, God-fearing group (his father’s snide reaction to Frank’s thoughtful birthday gift would send anyone packing) and that the bright, reflective Beth might be next to take leave.
Jump to 1973 and Beth is now attending NYU where she will reconnect with Frank and, at a well-drawn hipster party, unexpectedly learns that her beloved uncle is not only gay but has been in a 10-year relationship with Walid or “Wally” (Peter Macdissi), an ebullient aeronautics engineer from Saudi Arabia. Beth takes the news in relative stride — perhaps relating to Frank’s “outsider” status and the “sophistication” it implies — and promises not to breathe a word to the folks back home who’ve been led to believe Frank has a longtime girlfriend.
But the jig is up when Daddy Mac suddenly meets his maker, Frank and Beth take to the road to attend his funeral, and Wally, forbidden by Frank to join them, secretly follows in a rented car, surprising a furious, freaked-out Frank. This sets an occasionally heavy-handed series of conflicts into motion, culminating in Frank’s inevitable revelatory faceoff with his Carolina clan.
There’s plenty of valuable, time-capsule territory to cover here regarding being gay in a pre- and post-Stonewall world and Ball offers enough of an authentic taste to wish that he’d dug deeper. And while we can patch together what domesticity has been like for Frank and Wally, a better sense of what their gay lives were about in the adult years before they met could have edifyingly filled in era-specific gaps.
Also at issue: Frank, despite his decency, wisdom and elevated sensibilities, is such a troublingly self-hating gay man he could have dropped in from a rehearsal of “The Boys in the Band.” Add to that his teetering sobriety (cue the hidden booze bottles), irrevocably haunting memories of a teen-years tragedy, plus an inability to embrace the hovering Wally’s fulsome love and the scales can’t help but tip into melodrama.
In addition, having Wally hail from a land where one could be executed for being gay — and the life-and-death closet in which he thus resides to his beloved mother a world away — seems to plop an avoidable serving of pain onto an already heaving table.
All that said, Bettany is superb, infusing Frank’s hide-and-seek personality with an affecting mix of fear, anger, contempt, empathy, intellect and a kind of take-your-lumps dignity. It’s a tricky balancing act that largely keeps us in Frank’s court, even when the self-sabotage bit threatens to — and at times does — upend our sympathies.
Macdissi brings charm and warmth to the saintly Wally, though gets a bit too cloying in the process. Lillis conveys lovely, openhearted energy; Root nails his viscerally hateful role; Greer and Zahn are memorably quirky; and the formidable Martindale glows in a heartbreaking climactic scene with Bettany.
But it’s Smith, now 90, who steals the show in her brief scenes as Aunt Butch (where did that nickname come from?). When she peers through her cat-eye glasses and genially dubs her gay nephew a “backwards Bobby,” it’s a hand-in-glove moment for the acting treasure.
Rated: R for language, some sexual references and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Playing: Available Nov. 25 on Amazon Prime