There have been many ways to tell stories about the LGBTQ+ community through the years, but one story that gets told often is that of a gay person who’s at odds with his or her family or is afraid to come out to them. The fact that that remains the case this far into the 21st century is disappointing, but it’s clearly still resonant, as two new films with opposite tones — Uncle Frank and Happiest Season — deal with that story in their own way.
What’s also interesting is that both films frame the person with the family issue through another character. In Uncle Frank, the life of the title character (Paul Bettany) is filtered through the eyes of his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), who discovers the truth about him soon after starting college when she attends a party with Frank and his partner Walid (Peter Macdissi). A trip home following a family tragedy brings up a variety of emotional landmines for Frank, which he tries to navigate with the help of Beth and Walid.
In Happiest Season, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are a committed couple heading back to Harper’s home for Christmas when Harper reveals she has not yet come out to her family. Harper tries to hide the truth at home by playing the good daughter to her father (Victor Garber) and pretending Abby is just her roommate. Strangely, the film mostly deals with how Harper’s actions affect Abby, as much more time is spent focused on Abby’s feelings than Harper’s.
Frank's reticence to come out is understandable, as the film is set in the early '70s when gay people were not as accepted by society, and Frank is still dealing with childhood trauma stemming from his father (Stephen Root). Harper’s is a familiar story of not wanting to disappoint/alienate her conservative parents, but considering how open she is in her day-to-day life and the general welcoming of her family as a whole, her hiding makes less sense.
Both films struggle with their storytelling. Uncle Frank, written and directed by Alan Ball, is clearly a drama, but it hides the true depths of its drama for much of the film. And for a film about a family, we barely get to know most of the family members. Happiest Season, written and directed by Clea Duvall (with an assist from co-writer Mary Holland) lets the audience in on the family dynamics much more, but it’s hampered by its holiday movie conventions. It plays as a dramedy for much of its running time, but has several odd detours into broad comedy, which are jarring.
Thankfully, both films have stellar casts, which keeps each of them watchable even when their stories falter. Uncle Frank has scene-stealers like Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, and Steve Zahn, while Happiest Season throws Mary Steenburgen, Alison Brie, Dan Levy, and Aubrey Plaza into the mix. In both cases, the supporting cast elevates every scene they’re in, distracting from the less successful main plot.
The reason stories like these keep being told is because many in the queer community still experience prejudice and fear, and because much drama can often be found in such tales. On the other hand, telling the same story over and over again has the unintended effect of holding that community back. The fact that both Uncle Frank and Happiest Season put gay characters at the forefront should be celebrated, but those characters remain stuck in neutral when they should be going forward.
Both Uncle Frank, which debuts exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, and Happiest Season, which debuts exclusively on Hulu, will premiere on November 25.