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'Uncle Frank' review: Heartfelt, but scattered

(L-R) Sophia Lillis,Paul Bettany and Peter Macdissi in

(L-R) Sophia Lillis,Paul Bettany and Peter Macdissi in "Uncle Frank." Credit: Amazon Studios

PLOT In 1973, a gay man living in New York returns to his Southern hometown.

CAST Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi

RATED R (adult themes and language)

LENGTH 1:35

WHERE Amazon Prime Video

BOTTOM LINE Bettany’s terrific lead performance brings focus to a slightly scattered story.

In Alan Ball’s "Uncle Frank," Paul Bettany plays Frank Bledsoe, a gay man in post-Stonewall New York City who can't fully shake his conservative Southern upbringing. A late-life coming-out story from an openly gay filmmaker ("American Beauty," the HBO series "Six Feet Under"), "Uncle Frank" has a semi-autobiographical feel and all the makings of an engaging drama. The movie’s inability to pick one hero and stick with him, however, sometimes undermines its power.

Our eyes and ears in "Uncle Frank" belong to Frank’s niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis, of "It"), an intelligent, perceptive girl who — like Frank — doesn’t fit in with her South Carolina family. These relatives fall on a spectrum of Southern stereotypes, from clucking Mammaw (Margo Martindale) to the virulently homophobic Daddy Mac (Stephen Root, playing a character that might be inspired by Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"). Beth flees the family to find a bigger world; Frank had more pressing reasons, as we learn through several flashbacks involving his forbidden romance with a local boy.

When Beth enrolls at New York University and pops in on Frank unannounced, she discovers that his "roommate" Wally (Peter Macdissi), is really a lover. Wally is meant to charm us with his out-loud-and-proud personality, but he's often a rather maddening character. As a Saudi Arabian native, Wally hasn’t come out to his family back home yet he constantly pushes Frank to come out to his. Ball is far more charmed by Wally than we are, perhaps because Macdissi is his real-life partner.

Frank is easily the movie’s most convincing character. He is educated and cultured, yet proud of his Southern roots and small-town twang. And for all his newfound freedom in New York, Frank isn’t flamboyant or dandyish. Rather, he has the bedraggled look of a man running from his past — a past he'll have to confront when he returns home for a funeral. Bettany brings this complicated, conflicted man fully alive with a note-perfect performance.

Too bad this streaming-only film isn't eligible for the Oscars; Bettany would be on anyone's short list.

The inspiration for Ball's movie — involving unanswered questions about his father’s sexuality — may actually have made for a more compelling drama. For all its faults, though, "Uncle Frank" is heartfelt, and its message of acceptance manages to come through.

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