Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist (NLY) is not an easy film to watch. Brett Gregory’s debut feature follows the life of protagonist Jack, from a tough childhood under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to adulthood as an unemployed teacher isolated throughout Boris Johnson’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Set in the North of England “in a land that God forgot,” NLY’s overtly antiestablishment tone is delivered through a thousand cuts. The opening scene showcases monarchical iconography amid derelict public spaces and expensive high-rises looming over aging council housing. The message is subtle but clear: this is a film about poverty amid plenty.
In this sense, NLY is a film of the moment. The UK is currently experiencing the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation: typical household incomes will fall by their largest amount in half a century this year and, with the rich getting richer, income inequality is set to reach a record high. In Greater Manchester, where the film is almost entirely shot, 42 percent of children are living in poverty. It is in this context — unspoken but clear from the voiceover and set — that NLY opens, with an elderly Jack confined to his room in early 2020. Yet while NLY highlights the impact and isolation of those early pandemic days, the film is a much wider critique of the current economic and social order.
Jack’s life is told through a combination of personal monologues — young Jack in 1984, student Jack in 1992, and old Jack in 2020. While these are supplemented by a variety of characters throughout the film, it is often the protagonist who steals the show. These scenes — spoken directly to camera — allow the viewer to trace Jack’s journey from an abusive yet aspirational childhood through to the present in which he struggles with depression and alcoholism.
With shades of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham’s epic sixteen-minute one-shot dialogue in Hunger, young Jack’s lengthy monologue is the highlight of the entire film. With talk of “Maggie Thatcher, the Falklands, and the miner’s strike,” the dominant political events of 1984 are hard to miss. Interwoven with these political dramas are Jack’s personal stories of sexual abuse and domestic violence. But, as with much of NLY, the subtleties of the British class system and the long shadow it casts are hidden in plain sight. Young Jack talks of his dream to “go to university one day” despite the notion being ridiculed “on the estate” he lives on. At the same time, he’s reviled by his stepdad for being “born down south” and sounding “proper posh.”
This sense of not belonging is a prelude to Jack’s university years. “The impossibility of working-class achievement” as the English social theorist Mark Fisher once wrote, where working-class people are faced with the choice between staying put and accepting their lot or abandoning their origins and trying to integrate into the class above. As the academic work of Sam Friedman or Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims so poignantly highlight, upward social mobility often comes with a considerable psychological price.
Despite Jack being labeled as “a turncoat, a Judas, and a fraud” for attending university, NLY emphasizes that higher education is far from a guaranteed path to a secure job and the comforts of middle-class life. “The first six months of university are a steep learning curve” opines Jack, but it’s a “frenzied weekly regime of slate, speed,” and other drugs that has defined his studies. University is either drugs or you “pack your bags, fuck off, and go find God in Goa” is the main lesson Jack seems to have learned. Gregory, the film’s director, spent over sixteen years working as a lecturer, and while this binary feels crude, it is part of a larger, concise commentary on the commodification of education and working-class experiences of it.
Even with NLY’s opposition to modern forms of education, it is far from anti-intellectual. There are references to Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens but the film’s cultural centerpiece is Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. NLY opens with a slow panorama of the painting, it appears behind numerous characters throughout, is name-checked in Jack’s 1992 monologue, and the last shot of Jack is him mimicking a pose also found in Bosch’s garden.
Amid a myriad of other details that have political resonance — a Universal Credit letter, a news bulletin detailing PPE shortages, a middle-class relative fond of Princess Diana — references such as this are easily missed. Yet they serve as political breadcrumbs that, once put together, coalesce into the larger structure of cruelty and oppression that Jack inhabits.
While NLY is a fictional tale — the opening Jorge Luis Borges quote serves as a reminder that what follows is “mere appearance, dreamt by another” — the events are inspired by real life. In this sense, easy comparisons could be made to Shane Meadows’s acclaimed series The Virtues, another semi-autobiographical documentation of working-class life, where repressed pain is clear even when the plot is perhaps not.
NLY, however, is much more fantastical than anything produced by Meadows or Ken Loach. It is unapologetically surreal from the outset. This style undoubtedly reflects the alienation and turmoil felt by the protagonist and the increasing sense of unease is pushed along by a medieval soundtrack. When a former boss tells of Jack’s dismissal — unjustified in the eyes of the audience — from a beloved teaching role, NLY’s denouement seems inevitable.
Unsurprisingly, NLY’s withering critique of the social order and its unique style meant that this was not a film that easily secured mainstream funding. The film took six and a half years to make and Gregory was reliant on personal overdrafts and loans to complete production. This difficulty is indicative of the wider creative industries, which are overwhelmingly dominated by middle-class people, telling middle-class stories. Recent research has shown that less than one in ten actors, musicians, and writers are from working-class backgrounds, with working-class representation having more than halved since the 1970s.
Even without the quality of its delivery, NLY’s existence and the fact that it has already developed working-class talent is in itself a political triumph. With no transformational alternative to an increasingly authoritarian UK government in sight and a cost-of-living crisis that will get worse before it gets better, Jack’s final message of “a land poisoned, its people hemorrhaging fear and ignorance as if from an open fucking wound” is as bleak as it is apt. There is nothing else currently in cinema like it.