In “Uncle Frank,” the writer-director Alan Ball (“True Blood”) combines several overworked genres — the coming-of-age picture, the road-trip odyssey, the angst-filled family-reunion movie — and mostly steers clear of the obvious pitfalls.
The film begins in 1969 in South Carolina with the 14-year-old Betty — or rather, Beth (Sophia Lillis), as she takes to calling herself when her cool but mysterious uncle, Frank (Paul Bettany), encourages her to use her preferred nickname. Frank is a professor at N.Y.U., where Beth starts college a few years later. But when she shows up uninvited to a party at Frank’s apartment, she meets Wally (Peter Macdissi), who isn’t, as he first says, Frank’s roommate, but rather Frank’s romantic partner of a decade. Except for one sibling, Frank’s family doesn’t know he’s gay.
So when the death of Frank’s father (Stephen Root) sends Frank and Beth south again, they can speak with a new freedom. And as they navigate the contrived travel logistics that Ball has devised (Wally, whom Frank has insisted stay behind, improbably catches up with them in another car, just in time for Frank’s car to break down), flashbacks to Frank’s youth somewhat awkwardly commence, illustrating why he tiptoes around his relatives.
Ball has said that “Uncle Frank” was inspired by elements of his family history, and some of the characterization (Frank isn’t perfect but struggles with alcoholism, for instance) feels suitably layered. At other times (anything involving the tyrannical father), “Uncle Frank” tends toward overkill. But Bettany and Macdissi have a wonderful rapport.
Rated R. Hidden hurt. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Amazon.