Director Ken Loach
SORRY WE MISSED YOU B-
Great Britain France Belgium (100 mi) 2019 d: Ken Loach
Not making the same mistake as the theatrical release of I, Daniel Blake (2016) which was NOT subtitled, leaving plenty of missed dialogue, though it was subtitled at Cannes when it won the Palme d’Or for the second time in Loach’s career after previously winning for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). While the subtitling was extremely helpful, this is probably the most by-the-numbers Ken Loach film ever seen, easily the most predictable, where the outcome is known within the first few minutes of the film, so despite some tender moments, any emotional connection with the story may be lacking, as you’ve heard it and seen it before. While it’s an attempt to be a blistering indictment of an economic system doomed to fail, an examination of the 2008 financial crisis in Great Britain, as experienced by a debt-ridden family, where the working class gets short-changed by temporary positions and a part-time living wage, Loach never connects this particular example to the system overall, as much of this is simply too individualized to the specific circumstances of this largely dysfunctional family, despite their best efforts, offering no way out, mired instead in a downbeat portrait of misery porn. Shot on 16mm by Robbie Ryan, who also works with Andrea Arnold, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is a middle-aged father recently out of work, an everyman losing his construction job and his home to the economic crash, while his warmhearted wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is a nurse providing in-home care, visiting dozens of elderly or disabled people every day, providing meals, baths, clean-ups when needed, and “tuck-ins,” which is really just spending a little one-on-one with lonely people who have no one else, where her golden rule is “Treat them like your mum.” They have a 15-year old teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) who exhibits artistic talent, but displays it rebelliously through graffiti signing, which gets him in trouble with the law, while 12-year old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) has all the smarts, excelling in school. When one of his friends urges him to sign on with a big delivery company that resembles Amazon, with the promise of free same-day, one-day, and two-day shipping, he explores the options of becoming a self-employed contractor. Lured by the wonders of a life of autonomy and financial stability, he gets the message straight from the hard-nosed depot boss, Gavin Maloney (Ross Brewster), buying into the sales pitch, “You don’t get hired here, you come on board. We call it on-boarding…You don’t work for us, you work with us,” or so goes the sloganistic sales pitch to get you to sign your life away on the dotted line and with it all your inalienable rights. It’s an opportunity to become “the master of your own destiny,” a franchise owner, freed from wage slavery, where you can work your own hours and be your own boss, as everything here “is your choice.” Or so they would have you believe, clearly glorifying the job in its most glowing terms.
What Ricky quickly discovers is that the devil is in the details, mindboggling in its complexity, as he needs a van, which they can rent at an exorbitant daily rate, or lease, but requires a £1,000 deposit, which they don’t have, until Ricky gets the bright idea to sell his wife’s car, which she needs to make her rounds, already overstretched as is, where you don’t get paid for all the time lost waiting for public transportation, which really slows her down, streamlining the time available to spend with each client, basically forcing her to work longer hours into the night. Nonetheless, Ricky is obsessed with the opportunity, quickly discovering he has all the responsibilities of an employee, but none of the privileges, as in reality, he’s signed over all his rights, allowing him to be ruthlessly exploited by the company, deprived of any of the rights and protections that ordinary workers enjoy, like mandatory breaks where you can use a lavatory (drivers have to bring plastic pee bottles with them) or an 8-hour day subject to overtime, even protections if you’re injured on the job. Here there are tickets and fines incurred that are simply associated with driving, with an additional hundreds of pounds lost in penalties if he’s late or can’t show up, subject to a draconian penalty process that may even get him ousted from the program, while he’s responsible for lost parcels, even if he gets robbed. More importantly, his time is monitored on the handheld tracking device drivers carry with them, called “a gun,” so employers know exactly where they are at all hours of the day. These devices also include built-in delivery targets to meet which are strictly enforced. In no time, both Ricky and Abbie are working 14-hour days, six days a week, with no overtime pay, often returning home well after dinner, or when their kids should be or are already in bed, so the kids are essentially raising themselves, as every waking hour is devoured by work. The problem with this completely filled work schedule where you’re already stretched to the limits is you’re doomed if you need a day off for any reason, be it an injury, a broken window, a family funeral, police arrests, a court appearance, school meetings or events, doctor appointments, or just getting sick, as there’s no wiggle room for any of the kinds of things that happen in the real world, things that are bound to happen, which simply send them into a downward spiral before pushing them into crisis mode where all hell breaks loose.
Resembling the trials and tribulations of Job or the endless futility of Sisyphus, this family is tested like no other, becoming a rather monotonous journey into a minefield of continuous turmoil, where there’s simply no saving grace, or anything resembling hope. Grim realities set in as Seb runs into trouble with authorities, seen receiving a lecture from a stern policeman who comes across as one of the good guys, yet their son only grows more aloof, missing school, while spending reckless hours away from home at night, completely unaccounted for, where his parents are clueless where he’s gone, becoming more of a problem than they have time for. Arguments at home end up as scream fests, which only upset Liza Jane, who can’t sleep anymore, filled with pent-up anxieties from being home alone all the time, faced with grown-up responsibilities. As Ricky attempts to negotiate some time off to deal with some of these family issues, Maloney, who boasts that he is ”patron saint of nasty bastards,” is a brick wall of resistance, obsessed only with meeting delivery targets, where even catastrophic circumstances leave him immune to sympathy, as he’s a company man through and through. With accumulating debt, and a tragic accident that leaves him among the walking wounded, Ricky refuses to cut the cord, even faced with the realization that he’s basically a slave to the company, little more than owned property. So what we have is the intractable company man and the tireless worker who continues putting himself in harm’s way as he views work as his only salvation, even as he’s driving full-speed into a brick wall. With two working parents, if you’re not allowed time off to care for troubled family members, when you know you have children with disturbing emotional episodes, you’re probably in the wrong job. Knowing that at the outset, the story is set up to fail, with predictable results. The much bigger mistake made is the patriarchal bullying, allowing the father to make all the decisions (more and more an unsympathetic figure), as if we’re still living in the 1950’s. The best “family” decision was obviously not made early on, which they come to regret, with the husband telling the wife what to do in order to meet his own needs, quickly sending them down a sinkhole of debt and unending problems, where they lost any flexibility to address family issues at home, which oftentimes supersedes financial needs. Sometimes you need to be there for kids during episodic growing pains, as otherwise it can get worse, becoming a more permanent affliction, but this family simply couldn’t adjust to their own internal dysfunction, and it cost them, making this as much an indictment of this specific family and the poor decisions they made as opposed to the inflexible economic system that would not budge when they needed a break. Viewers certainly get the point, as it’s drilled into them from the outset, where despite an affectionately compelling performance by Debbie Honeywood who constantly puts her client’s needs before her own, this is sadly one of Loach’s weaker films, predetermined and overly fatalistic, feeling mechanically overwritten, offering plenty of punishment to fit the crime.