‘its untethered nature, its lack of specificity, is frustrating when it is trying to be a close-up of a particular fractured family‘ – Ian Maleney on You’re Ugly Too
You’re Ugly Too isn’t really a film that progresses; it meanders. It begins with the release of Will (Aiden Gillen) from prison, in order to take care of his niece, Stacey, after the death of her mother, his sister. He decides the best way to do this would be to move to a caravan park outside Tullamore, the depressed midlands town where he intends to find work. During the course of the film, we find out that Stacey has some form of narcolepsy, and that Will struggles with addiction. He takes her medicine, has a wild night out with strangers in a house in Tullamore and wakes up outside a stranger’s caravan. We’ve all been there.
The only other characters in the film are a continental couple; Emilie, a very pretty, out-of-work teacher from Belgium and her husband, Tibor, a Polish dustbin collector and an apparently mean drunk who has no issues offering up his wife for other men to “have a go of”. The film’s plot, such as it is, revolves around the attraction between Will and Emilie and the good-natured tension between Will and Stacey. In the background is the threat of Stacey’s return to foster care and Will’s return to prison, should he prove an inept carer for his niece.
In the abstract, the film is a worthwhile study of the difficulties involved in family life, pushed along by giving the precocious youngster all the funny lines. Gillen does a passable hapless know-nothing, but is less convincing whenever the role demands more than glazed incomprehension of his youthful charge. There’s one point where this lack of definition turns nasty, giving the impression that – after a couple of drinks – Will might have less than wholesome feelings about prepubescent girls. It’s brushed over quickly and not mentioned again, suggesting that the film doesn’t actually mean this to be the case, but there is a moment where you wonder if things aren’t about to get a whole lot darker.
Beyond the acting, the details of the story are somewhat loose. Stacey’s narcolepsy sees her rejected from the local school, something which is technically illegal but serves the plot in bringing Emilie further into the picture. The diagnosis of the disease is sketched in in the first place, and altogether it feels like an unnecessary addition to her character, as does the skate-board she carries around. When the plot finally heads towards its climax, Gillen’s character attempts to make such spectacularly bad decisions that you’re left feeling prison might be the best place for him after all. Emilie’s apparent attraction to not one but two terrible – boorish, immature, drunkard – men is difficult to understand.
The film’s setting is unnecessary too. It’s obvious that shooting in the midlands is significantly cheaper and easier than shooting in Dublin, but the attempt to make a town that is an hour away from Dublin seem like the far end of the world is misguided. The location becomes nothing more than a backdrop, facilitating some picturesque walks along the railway lines of quaintly industrialised bogs, but never intruding upon the action. The film could have been set anywhere, and its untethered nature, its lack of specificity, is frustrating when it is trying to be a close-up of a particular fractured family, a particular time in the lives of these apparently displaced people.
The more prominent redeeming feature is the unwillingness to totally redeem Gillen’s character. He ends the film abandoned by both the women in his life, as ought to be the case. By not giving in to the inept-but-charming male character, by not giving him the things he would get in many films, You’re Ugly Too saves itself from complete mediocrity and leaves its female characters the self-respect they deserve. Yes, we are to feel sorry for Will, for the misfortunate bravery that has landed him in prison, for the difficulties of addiction, but such pity is no basis for love or for family. The women around him realise this, and go their respective ways. For this reason alone, You’re Ugly Too is a feel good film.