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Review by Rich Cline |
dir-scr Alan Ball
prd Bill Block, Michael Costigan, Jay Van Hoy, Stephanie Meurer, Peter Macdissi, Alan Ball
with Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeill, Caity Brewer, Cole Doman, Michael Perez
release US/UK 27.Nov.20
20/US Amazon 1h35
SUNDANCE FILM FEST
Is it streaming?
Sharply written and directed by Alan Ball, this warm drama feels autobiographical, set a period when people had to lie about who they were. It's 1973, and the story follows a man whose carefully constructed image is picked apart by people he loves. The script is a bit over-egged, spiralling into overwrought emotion. But there are solid points along the way, and it's beautifully played by a terrific cast.
Bright teen Beth (Lillis) grows up thinking Uncle Frank (Bettany) is the only member of her boisterous Southern family who actually sees her. A professor, he's so calm and cultured that his parents (Martindale and Root) and siblings (Zahn and McNeill) pick on him nonstop. In Manhattan for university, the now 18-year-old Beth drops in on Frank's flat unannounced, discovering the truth about his secret life with his boyfriend of 10 years Wally (Macdissi). Then there's a family tragedy in South Carolina, so Frank and Beth hit the road together. And Wally crashes the party.
The relationship between Beth and Frank is refreshingly honest, as they're able to discuss things others won't talk about. Lovely scenes along the way include the moment when she becomes the first person in the family he comes out to (flickering flashbacks reveal his past, despite this not being his story). This family is so raucous that it's easy to see why Frank moved away. Meanwhile, there are striking textures in his relationship with Wally, who badly wants to be there for him.
Bettany cleverly underplays Frank, even as his family goads him for being "different". Lillis is engaging as a young woman smart enough to distance herself from her grandfather's prejudice. Macdissi's role is somewhat broader, as the Saudi Wally is hiding from his even more extreme family half a world away. And the character also has to do the plot's heavy lifting, scolding Frank about drinking too much. The stellar supporting cast adds terrific spark to their roles, even if they're not terribly complex.
Frank's alcoholism is a cheap plot device, leading to several melodramatic conflicts in the final act. The strongest elements here relate to Frank's buried self-loathing, which has eaten away at his soul in the obvious ways. While the story heads in a very dark direction, it also veers into more crowd-pleasing territory, offering a strong, bittersweet dose of hope. So even if the narrative feels contrived, the film has a heartwarming impact through the work of these great actors.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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