Uncle Frank was always different.
He lived in New York City, for one thing—a place so far removed from Creekville, South Carolina, that for 14-year-old Betty Bledsoe, it might as well have been Shangri La. He was educated, erudite and funny. And he treated Betty like a person: Not a child, not an annoyance, but a person. He’d look in her eyes and ask her questions. It seemed like he even cared about her answers. Why Frank’s own father, Daddy Mac, seemed to hate him so, Betty couldn’t figure. After all, Uncle Frank was the type of person that Betty wanted to be.
And in 1969, on one of his all-too-infrequent visits back to Creekville, Frank told Betty something that would change her life: She didn’t need to stick to the path that seemed laid before her. She could choose her own.
“You’re gonna be the person you decide to be, or you’re going to be the person everybody else says you are,” he said.
Four years later, Betty—now calling herself Beth—enrolls in New York University in Manhattan, where Uncle Frank teaches. She took his advice and left South Carolina for something bigger, brighter, noisier. But in the aftermath of a big, bright, noisy party that Uncle Frank throws, she learns just how “different” he really is.
Uncle Frank is gay. He’s been living with another guy for 10 years. And he’s been keeping it a secret from most of the rest of the family for decades.
It’s a pretty stunning revelation, but Beth has little time to process it. As she recovers from a hangover and eats breakfast with Uncle Frank and his Muslim beau, Walid, Frank gets a call from home: Daddy Mac is dead.
Uncle Frank wants to skip the funeral. Daddy Mac never cared for him much, after all, and visiting home always makes him feel uncomfortable. But Walid—Wally, Frank calls him—won’t hear of it. “You came from them, so how bad could they be?”
Wally wants to tag along, but for Frank, that’s just too much—too close to exposing his secret. “Honestly, it will be so much harder for me if you come,” Frank tells him.
So Beth and Uncle Frank pile in the car and begin the long drive south, alone: Beth to say goodbye, Frank to survive—to push through one more family get-together before he can go back to New York. Back home.
Uncle Frank was always different. He doesn’t want the rest of the family to know just how different he is. But, funny thing about secrets: Sometimes, no matter how closely you guard them, they just slip out.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Perhaps the most unlikely hero here is Wally. In some significant ways, he’s exactly the sort of person you’d want to have in your corner. He’s gregarious and easy to laugh, the sort of guy who loves not just his loved ones, but life itself, easily and without reservation.
Wally is determined to help Frank deal with this family tragedy—and any other tragedies that might hitch a ride—as well as he can. He’s also deeply committed to keeping Frank (who’s had some serious drinking issues in the past) sober to the best of his ability.
Frank’s relationship with his family is, naturally, complex, and we’ll talk about some of those complexities later. But for now, let’s just say that the Bledsoe clan is made up of fallen individuals with lots of different opinions, and—for the most part—they try to love each other and deal with each other as well as they can.
Uncle Frank, the movie, isn’t just concerned with how the rest of Frank’s family might deal with his homosexuality: It’s also interested in how God might view it, too. And, as you might expect, the movie suggests that God would be far more understanding than the Bible would suggest.
Wally left his native Saudi Arabia because of his sexual orientation (telling Beth that the deeply conservative Islamic government executes homosexuals). But he’s still a practicing Muslim; and we see him engaged in morning prayers, facing toward Mecca.
He and Frank met when Wally noticed Frank reading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the title of which Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, took from Proverbs), which launched the two of them into a discussion of Islamic culture. At one juncture, he tells Frank that they’re each other’s family. “You know it, I know it, and God knows it, and that’s all that matters.”
Frank used to be pretty religious, too. We learn that Daddy Mac caught 16-year-old Frank and his first male crush making out, and Daddy Mac tried to put the fear of God (and Daddy Mac, of course) into the teen. “You’re gambling with your very soul, son,” Daddy Mac tells him, adding that God will cast him into the “lake of fire” if he keeps it up. Frank took that message to heart and told his would-be boyfriend that they could never do that sort of thing again. “Do you want to go to hell?” Frank tells him. “Because it’s a sickness, and God hates it.”
Obviously, Frank either changed his ideas on what was acceptable to God, or stopped believing in God altogether in the inventing years. When a priest recites the Lord’s Prayer during Daddy Mac’s funeral, Frank doesn’t pray, but seems to connect the prayer with a horrific tragedy he experienced. And when someone tells him, gently that he’s going to hell for what he is, Frank seems to accept the assertion with an unexpected level of grace.
Two people argue about where homosexuality lands, theologically. “The Bible says it’s a sin,” one says. “The Bible also says it’s OK to have slaves,” another contends. (The second speaker mischaracterizes what the Scripture says about slavery, of course—accepting it as a contemporary fact of life when those passages were written without actually condoning it.)
Uncle Frank pretends to have a girlfriend, a woman who happens to be Jewish. (And her religious identity also makes Frank’s brother, Mike, uncomfortable.) When Beth says that she’s never known anyone who was gay before, Frank tells her that the Baptist choir director was gay. Beth’s shocked. “He was so religious,” she says.
When Wally wraps his hair in a towel, Frank jokes, “You look like you belong in a 1950s Bible movie.” In another room, Beth watches a 1950s Bible movie. Wally says that Frank has always though that his dad was “the devil” and his mom was a “saint.”
As mentioned, Frank and Wally are a same-sex couple. We see them kiss frequently and sometimes begin foreplay in bed while both are in their underwear. One man mentions being aroused (evidence of which may be subtly visible under his clothes). The two apparently have sex in a hotel, because Beth can hear them from an adjacent room. (She smiles as the sounds continue.)
In flashback, we see a teen Frank make out with another teen (named Sam). The two kiss in a lake. Later, they kiss on Frank’s bed, both in their underwear, until they’re interrupted.
To hide his sexual inclinations, Frank lies to his family, telling them he’s been “living in sin” with a woman for several years. (Some members of the family meet her when dropping Beth off for college). The same woman has apparently played the same role for Wally, too: In reality, she’s a lesbian, and Wally walks in on her making out with another woman during a party. Both women are in their underwear.
Beth starts dating a boy, Bruce, in college. They make out passionately on a bed. Things seem on the verge of going further when Beth confesses that she’s a virgin—which stops Bruce’s advances cold. Even though she’s willing to lose her virginity to him, Bruce says “I don’t want to screw things up by moving too fast.”
But Bruce also has a secret: He makes a pass at Frank at a party, telling him that he’s not Beth’s boyfriend (even though she introduced him as such) and that he would be happy to perform oral sex on Frank, which would be like “poetry.” (Frank kicks him out of the party and tells Beth about the betrayal, adding that 99% of straight boys would’ve slept with her. “Guys like Bruce always make you think it’s your fault,” he says.)
Frank asks Beth if she’s ever had a crush on a girl. (She hasn’t, but she does admit making out with another girl to get some “practice.”) Two female relatives discuss some racier passages from Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather: Beth (then Betty) overhears and quotes a very graphic passage from the same book. We learn that one of Beth’s cousins got pregnant out of wedlock, and a few years later she tells Beth that her husband is still great in bed.
When Frank, Wally and Beth check into a hotel in South Carolina, the hotel clerk forces them to take two separate rooms for morality’s sake: Beth gets her own room, while Frank and Wally will sleep in the other. (Frank and Wally, obviously, agree.)
Beth, at 14, says that she was forbidden from becoming a band majorette: The uniforms were too revealing for her father, and she’d probably get raped, he said. Uncle Frank does not approve, and he tells her that if Beth ever gets pregnant, to “talk to me first before you talk to anyone else in this family.” (It’s clearly a suggestion that he’d help her get an abortion.)
Two men get into a fight, with one slugging the other hard in the face. (We later see some blood on the man’s lip.) In flashback, someone commits suicide: The body floats in a lake and is frantically pulled out by someone else. A couple of people worry that someone else has killed himself.
About 20 f-words and seven s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “p—y” and “h—,” as well as harsh slurs mocking homosexuals.
We learn that Frank struggled with alcohol previously, and Wally apparently helped him get and stay sober. (Wally insists, though, that he won’t go through that difficult time again.) When Frank admits to smoking marijuana at his own party, Wally looks deeply disappointed. (Frank tries to tell a skeptical Wally that it’s not the same thing.)
The stress of the funeral leads Frank back into the arms of liquor again, though. He buys several mini-bottles (telling Beth not to tell Wally) and drinks them on occasion—and eventually to the point of deep inebriation, even though someone pours as many bottles as he can find down the drain. (Like many alcoholics, Frank hides at least one bottle in case the rest of his stash is discovered.)
Beth gets drunk on martinis during a party. Frank and others smoke cigarettes (as well as other substances at a party.)
Beth’s run-in with martinis leads her straight to the bathroom. She vomits in a toilet and spends a pretty significant amount of time hanging her head into the bowl.
Daddy Mac is pretty horrid to Frank, even in his will. We hear sarcastic jokes at the expensive of both Jewish people and black people.
When Frank’s secret comes out, his mother is one of the last family members he talks to about it. He’s terrified by what she might say. But she takes him in her arms.
“Frank, you are my precious gift from God,” she says. “And nothing, nothing will ever change that.”
This scene feels, in some ways, like the movie’s emotional core: It’s a moment when Frank feels as if he’s part of the family again. But it highlights the movie’s central dissonance, too—and downplays its inherent complexities.
For centuries, or perhaps millennia, people with same-sex leanings have been asked within Christianity to change: change how they feel, how they act, who they love. And for most of that time, American culture agreed.
We live in a much different America now: Society no longer is asking those in the LGBTQ community to change. It is insisting that God—or, at the very least, our age-old understanding of God—should change instead.
But for many Christians who sincerely believe the Bible prohibits homosexual relationships, one cannot simply toss aside what Scripture says about the issue. It’s not comparable to what the Bible says about slavery (as the movie tries to suggest it is). Given the subject’s repeated mentions in the New Testament, the Bible’s teaching about same-sex encounters can’t be casually dismissed.
No, the issue is far thornier—and it’s one that hits close to home for many Christians. Friends and family members are coming out in greater numbers, asking for acceptance and love. The issue is on more doorsteps than one can imagine. And, of course, it’s far more than an “issue.” It’s sons. Daughters. Fathers and mothers.
To ask people to choose between loving LGBTQ family members and obeying God … that’s an impossible choice, really. We must, somehow, do both—honoring our relationships fully without relinquishing core biblical convictions. And in so doing, perhaps we keep a pathway open between our loved ones and God’s grace, love and miracles. Because when we fail to love our loved ones, we simply push them not just from us, but—as perhaps with Frank in the movie—away from God, too.
That stance wouldn’t please the makers of Uncle Frank, perhaps. But frankly, this film won’t please a lot of discerning viewers, either. While Uncle Frank is more nuanced at times than you might expect, its messaging can still feel pretty heavy-handed, too. And the content, of course—from drug use and alcohol abuse to suicide and sexual content and 20 or so f-words—obviously pushes well into R-rated territory as well.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.