'You're Ugly Too': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Aidan Gillen and Lauren Kinsella in 'You're Ugly Too'
A film made all the more bittersweet by its delicate touch

Aidan Gillen and young newcomer Lauren Kinsella play a makeshift family navigating each other's guarded feelings in Irish writer-director Mark Noonan's debut.

An engaging minor-key drama about a stopgap family solution and its lingering impact on the two people thrown together, You're Ugly Too marks a modest but well-observed debut for Mark Noonan. Shot in the lonely Irish midlands where the writer-director grew up and infused with an evocative sense of place, the film showcases lovely, unforced performances from Aidan Gillen and Lauren Kinsella as an uncle and his orphaned niece who start out as strangers but form a connection probably destined to endure.

Premiering in the Berlinale's Generation KPlus section, which often blurs the lines between films about or intended for children and teenagers, this is a gentle reflection on the importance of trust and truth in relationships. While the emotional stakes are high, the director generally opts to keep the drama muted, which is both a virtue and a limitation. But that restraint also helps its mild dose of sentiment go down easily.

In an effectively drawn role that embraces the somber shades of rueful middle age as well as the laddish vestiges of youth, Gillen (Game of Thrones) plays rough-edged Will, who is given compassionate release six months before the end of his prison sentence to care for his 11-year-old niece, Stacey (Kinsella). Her mother died six weeks earlier of causes that are suggested but never fully explained, while her father has been deceased for many years.

The rapport of this odd couple is amusingly scrappy and irreverent as they dance around their masked feelings of loss, trading barbs in a distinctly Irish surly-sweet fashion. Humor is drawn from the irony that the "eedjit" fresh out of prison is the one endeavoring to curb the jaded tween's bad habits of spitting and cursing.

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When Stacey opens up a little with her uncle it's mainly to ask why he went to prison, something her mother never told her and Will is also reluctant to discuss. Though audiences will likely guess the reason before it's revealed, and Stacey clearly has her suspicions, his silence on the subject contributes to keep the wall between them in place.

She makes no secret of being underwhelmed with his decision to drive them across miles of flat countryside to stay at a caravan park where he and her mother used to go as kids. Other factors emerge as they get to know one another, notably Stacey’s bouts of narcolepsy, resulting in her being put on medication that keeps her out of school.

At the caravan park, they strike up a gradual friendship with a pretty Belgian neighbor, Emilie (Erika Sainte), whose marriage to the moody Romanian Tibor (George Pistereanu) appears strained. A former schoolteacher in her birth country, Emilie repays Will's kindness by offering to tutor Stacey, serving as a tentative bridge between uncle and niece.

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The principal conflict concerns the limited amount of time Will has to find a job and prove that he can provide a stable environment for Stacey, before a welfare interview to decide whether the girl goes back into the foster system and he returns to prison to finish his sentence. That pressure, heightened by the scant employment options for a man with a criminal record, takes its toll. While Tibor helps out by giving him some work on his trash collection truck, Will starts boozing and popping Stacey's Adderall as the situation begins to deteriorate.

While Noonan makes it clear at every step that careworn Will is doing his best to be a parent to a difficult girl who does little to simplify that task, the script is also soberly realistic in its outcomes. There's no tidy solution and only the quietest hints of consolation in the concluding stretch, but the note of hope that a lasting bond has been formed is quite touching.

In addition to the two leads, Pistereanu and especially Sainte bring a warm, understated feeling for the complications of life in an environment in which there are all kinds of outsiders. The film makes the point with subtlety and sensitivity that despite cultural differences, people are people, and human connections are always possible.

While the production has a no-frills feel, it's also polished, from cinematographer Tom Comerford's soulful images of the nowhere setting to David Geraghty's wistful, mostly acoustic score. The meaning of the somewhat ungainly title becomes clear only in an old joke told by Will at the very end of this tender snapshot of damaged lives intersecting. The film's poignancy creeps up on you, echoing the cautious development of the main characters' mutual affection.

Production company: Savage Productions
Cast: Lauren Kinsella, Aidan Gillen, Erika Sainte, George Pistereanu
Director-screenwriter: Mark Noonan
Producers: John Keville, Conor Barry
Executive producer: Keith Potter
Director of photography: Tom Comerford
Production designer: Neill Treacy
Costume designer: Laura Anne Mooney
Music: David Geraghty
Editor: Colin Campbell
Sales: Picture Tree International
No rating, 78 minutes.