Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2020. Amazon Studios, Miramax Films, Your Face Goes Here Entertainment, Byblos Productions, COTA Films, Parts and Labor. Screenplay by Alan Ball. Cinematography by Khalid Mohtaseb. Produced by Alan Ball, Bill Block, Michael Costigan, Peter Macdissi, Stephanie Meurer, Jay Van Hoy. Music by Nathan Barr. Production Design by Darcy C. Scanlin. Costume Design by Megan Stark Evans. Film Editing by Jonathan Alberts.
Beth (Sophia Lillis) has left her small, conservative South Carolina town to study at New York University where her beloved Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a professor. It’s the seventies and she’s very sheltered about the big, wide world, knowing only that she wants to get away from her loud, brash family headed by the grim cruelty of her grandfather (Stephen Root) and her loving but salty grandmother (Margo Martindale). Uncle Frank is unlike everyone else in her clan, soft-spoken, erudite, kind, and as she comes to realize with a shock when she crashes a party at his apartment, gay and living with a man named Wally (because no one can say Walid, played by Peter Macdissi). When Beth had previously visited the city with her parents (Steve Zahn, Judy Greer) to prepare for school, Frank was living with a beautiful woman named Charlotte who it turns out was just a beard. Her small-town eyes continue to be opened as school begins and she is quickly treated to the devastation of a disappointing first relationship that coincides with her revelation about her uncle, who is never less than loving and supporting of her. When Beth and Frank learn bad news from home and need to go back to South Carolina for a family gathering, her mother insists that she doesn’t want her flying home, which means that she, Frank and Walid go on that most beloved of movie adventures, the road trip. It’s an opportunity for her to learn more about her relative, while for Frank this trip takes him to painful memories of his childhood and his traumatic experience coming of age in an era that refused to make room for someone who didn’t fit the definition of normal, his sorrowful secrets also unlocking bad old habits that he had managed to control for so long. This southern-gothic indulgence is riddled with cliches, if the fact that it centres around a Green Book-esque road trip makes you roll your eyes then don’t bother trying with the rest of it, because it’s not a film to admire so much as it is one to cherish and enjoy for the things about it that work so well. Sure, the stereotypically trashy characters are uninspired (Greer being ignorant about middle eastern food is funny, and probably accurate, but Ball’s includes it with a sense of urgency that veers on the offensive) and Beth formative moments are easy to see a mile away, but everyone on screen is giving so much grit and honesty to what they’re doing that it’s impossible not to be affected by it. Bettany is particularly great, it might be the first major role that has allowed him the opportunity to really reveal himself, and he delivers charisma, humour, and charm while equally fearless about the character’s descent into denial and self-destruction. Alan Ball’s goal in telling this tale appears to be to accurately chart the process of being out and proud in a different time, when LGBT issues were not just controversial but were actually kept out of the conversation entirely. That aspect of the story is particularly potent, especially Frank’s natural instinct to keep things under wraps and his angry frustration with Walid’s insane desire to create a different world; the film demands we respect the caution of one while expressing gratitude to the other, since whatever you want to say about the current climate we live in, we owe a great deal to both, and in doing so Ball earns the reward of an ending that feels like something out of a fairy tale (but is welcome all the same).