The American Film Institute wrapped its 7-day 2020 AFI Fest last Friday and, although I enjoyed several during its run, there are two films that I want to highlight – one fictional and one non-fiction – both dealing with social constraints that can prevent people from living freely as their authentic selves.
The first film, UNCLE FRANK by writer/director Alan Ball, is a slow-burning, character-driven tale about a gay man who, along with his 18-year-old college freshman niece, travels from New York to his rural South Carolina hometown to attend the funeral of his estranged father.
Set in 1973, the film explores Frank’s (Paul Bettany) relationship with his family, especially his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) who idolizes her uncle and comes to better understand his separation from the family, and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) who unexpectedly joins the duo on their trip – against Frank’s wishes.
It’s an interesting story, with a great soundtrack, that elicits fine performances from its cast – even if it doesn’t land all the emotional punches that I believe were intended.
And it’s engaging to watch the relationship that develops between Frank and Beth, with her learning more about the uncle she initially only knew as the cool one that her grandfather ostracized.
With a 95-minute running time, “Uncle Frank” is a short watch, even if it seems slower at times, with great performances and an entertaining enough story. I rate it 3 out of 5 beats on the MMTrometer.
UNCLE FRANK will premiere (streaming) on November 25.
The next film, the documentary NO ORDINARY MAN, really “threw me for a loop” because I should have a memory of subject Billy Tipton’s death, but I cannot recall ever hearing his story.
In 1989 Mr. Tipton, a moderately successful jazz musician during the 1930’s – 50’s, tragically died in his son’s arms and was subsequently outed as transmasculine by paramedics called to the home – to the surprise of his family and later the public.
“No Ordinary Man” chronicles Tipton’s life through transmasculine actors auditioning to portray him and their thoughts on gender and disclosure politics, archival footage that includes segments from talk shows during the media frenzy surrounding Tipton’s death, and interviews from historians, community activists and family – in particular Billy Tipton Jr. who recounts his early family life, and learns from directors the impact his father’s life still has on many in the transgender community.
The documentary is highly engaging and respectfully told, while paying homage to Tipton – whose intent for never disclosing his identity is not definitively known. Some people, including Diane Wood Middlebrook author of the biography “Suits Me,” insinuate he transitioned only to advance his career in a male-dominated industry. This rationale, however, does not align with Tipton living happily with his wife, and three adopted children, after experiencing modest success and only retiring (in the 70’s) due to his worsening arthritis.
It stands to reason that Tipton, transitioning in a time of extreme prejudice, homophobia and no sex reassignment or hormone treatment options, kept his identity secretly guarded because it was the safest way to exist and subsist.
Some of the most heartbreaking moments in the film are watching his widow Kitty face talk show hosts and audiences with two actions: 1) maintaining she was not aware of Tipton’s true identity because of her husband’s ruse about being severely disfigured in an accident (which he claimed injured his genitals and resulted in the daily binding of his chest), and 2) proclaiming Tipton as her husband and correcting people’s attempts to dismiss him as such.
The documentary also notes how Tipton rarely sought out medical assistance, most likely due to the lack of disclosure, which ultimately led to him dying from a peptic ulcer that remained untreated and began to hemorrhage.
Co-directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, “No Ordinary Man” cleverly uses audition footage, personal stories, historical interviews and audio to explore the life of a man who left the world without a firsthand account of his experiences. It’s engaging and heartbreaking and shines a light on the difficulties many experience with disclosure – even decades after Tipton’s death. I rate the film 4.5 out of 5 beats on the MMTrometer.
“No Ordinary Man” is still travelling the festival circuit and no additional distribution details have been released, but I will most certainly keep you posted.
Until next thought, Thomasena