At first, Uncle Frank would have us believe that it's about a shy young student (Sophia Lillis) who blossoms under the tutelage of her urbane gay uncle (Paul Bettany). Opening in small-town South Carolina in 1969, the two outsiders bond at a family gathering as Uncle Frank, who lives in New York, offers his 14-year-old niece Betty – who will rechristen herself Beth – a stimulating contrast to the aimless Southern crowd she's stuck with. We jump ahead four years, and Beth is now 18 and entering New York University, where her uncle teaches.
Just as Beth starts adapting to city life, and Frank outs himself to her, the plot comes crashing in when Frank's father, the patriarch of the clan, passes away. Now Frank and Beth must drive down for the funeral. To their surprise, Frank's cuddly Saudi Arabian partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) tags along in a rental car. It being the South and 1973, Frank hasn't revealed his homosexuality to his family, much to the disappointment of Wally (whose own family, by his admission, would have him beheaded). You can guess where this is going.
After winning an Oscar for his screenplay for American Beauty, Ball really made his name on TV, most significantly as the creator of HBO's Six Feet Under. That series gave us a complex family whose development was slow, funny, tragic, and often very messy. Ball seems to think he needs to dispense with such complexities when making a feature, as if the format requires mechanical plotting and a tidy ending. Thus Uncle Frank descends into melodrama and cliché. Beth gets pushed to the side, Frank's problems boil down to a single traumatic event from his youth, and the question of "How does a traditional family deal with a gay son?" has just two answers: with total and immediate acceptance or with cruel and ignorant rejection.
In truth, human beings are more complicated. And although there have already been loads of films about gay characters coming out to their friends and families, there's still plenty of fertile storytelling ground in the nuanced and contradictory feelings that real people have in circumstances like this. It's lamentable that Ball would divide Frank's relations into either "I love gay people!" or "Gays are perverts going to hell!" For a quiet, personal film like Uncle Frank, simplistic dichotomies like these insult the audience's intelligence – although I'm sure some folks will love the movie as it will flatter their open-mindedness.
Bettany is thoroughly committed, as usual. Lillis is winning in an underdeveloped role. Macdissi isn't a bad actor, but as Ball's life partner, he mostly only gets cast in Ball's projects, which kind of makes you wonder. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the world's most prolific character actors: Stephen Root, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Lois Smith. Each gets his or her own little moment, but not much more than that.
Finally, as with most period pictures set in the 1970s, the characters really look like 1990s hipsters. Note to costume designers and hair department heads: when making a movie set in the Me Decade, watch a few episodes of Match Game first and be reminded of how outrageous people actually looked back then.