United Kingdom, Belgium, France, 2019
Directed by Ken Loach
With Kris Hitchen (Ricky Turner), Debbie Honeywood (Abby), Rhys Stone (Seb), Katie Proctor (Liza Jane), Ross Brewster (Maloney)
“Sorry, we missed you”: the sentence has the meaning of failing to reach someone, to get in touch, also to be too late. It is spread on the top of the form drivers delivering parcels for the company PDF must leave in the letterbox in case their clients are not there to receive them. This is the worst-case scenario, actually: ideally, the driver should hand the parcel over to the client who then in exchange scribbles a precious signature on an even more precious scanner, tellingly dubbed by the drivers the gun, that signals the driver did not fail his assignment and can get his paycheck.
This driver is in theory a self-employed worker under contract with PDF to provide a service that should make him rich while guaranteeing a full independence and offering a welcome flexibility. This was music to the ears of Ricky Turner, a hard-working, proud, and stubborn Mancunian living now in Newcastle, who needs to make a fast buck to fulfill his dream, becoming the owner of his house, the kind of goal that got busted by the collapse of the banking system in 2008. He manages to convince his wife Abby to sell her car to pay for the truck he needs and dives headlong into his new career, with the support of the man who runs the Newcastle PDF operations and has signed up his contract, Maloney. However, Ricky slowly realizes how hard, demanding, exhausting and time-consuming it is.
For her part, Abby Turner is also a kind of self-employed worker, under contract with a company that helps sick people and frail oldies to stay at their homes. Her workday can be remarkably long and her tasks delicate and the care she provides, however efficient and meticulous it is, is not always enough to fulfill those people’s needs. It can also be amazingly demanding, as Abby cannot imagine let her clients, a word she hates, down, even if time is up and no bigger paycheck would come.
This couple epitomizes a new economy, oriented towards services tailored to personal needs, offered on a 24/7 basis, and based on self-employment and flexible contracts that turn the businesses into small outfits relentlessly focused on low expenditures and big turnovers, with high-tech providing constant support – and control. The ups and downs Ricky and Abby must deal with in their daily routines, even as their family problems get out of hand, are presented in quite natural but awfully precise ways that expose fully how damaging this system is for the workers. Maloney’s promises of empowerment and wealth ring increasingly hollow and he later acknowledges the reality is dire: the system is rigged so that profits can be up, with consumer satisfaction used to keep the pressure on the workers.
“What happened to the 8-hours workday?”: the question asked by one of Abby’s customers when she sees Abby’s timetable deserves to be raised – but then this woman used to help miners on strike during their clash with the Cabinet led by Margaret Thatcher. She belongs to another era that feels dreadfully distant. When Abby bitterly and loudly argues on the phone with Maloney as Ricky is waiting to be examined by a hospital doctor after getting whacked and stolen by young thugs, her words and tears are observed by a stunned crowd of patients; stares are blank and no one seems ready to speak or to act; the jobless around Daniel Blake, in “I, Daniel Blake” (2016), were far quicker to express solidarity. The sad truth is that everybody is comfortable with a rapid delivery system and no one wants to care for the drivers behind it, as Maloney pointed out. The quest for money, especially after the misery brought by the 2008 financial crisis, also leads to accept corporate and social changes without much questioning, even less rebellion. “I need the money”, Ricky would shout at the end, getting in his truck despite his wounds and his relatives’ cries. Happy ending is impossible and the audience is left to deal with a truck that keeps riding and delivering, whatever the costs.
“Sorry, we missed you”: the sentence has also the meaning of grieving an absence, especially of a loved one. The family problems that slowly engulf Ricky and Abby can be put down, in a way, to a problem many families sooner or later, nicely or awfully, cope with: a teenager becoming restive. Seb, 15, plays hooky to hone his graffiti skills with a bunch of mates. But his passion for street art and contempt for school reflect a wider sense of alienation and rejection; as Ricky becomes more and more mired in his job, Seb becomes more and more critical of this slave-like career. The two increasingly fail to get along and end up fighting each other. Liza Jane, a few years younger than Seb, would like to play by the rules and to see her relatives be united and happy. But she is overwhelmed by the way things get out of control, taking eventually an initiative that actually makes things worse.
Liza Jane just wanted that everything could be as it used to be – and so Seb claims in his last talk with Ricky. The most interesting, concrete, poignant aspect of the film is showing, in a perceptive, quiet style, how this average working-class family is undermined, frayed, eventually rent apart by the constraints their theoretically liberating and advancing job positions put on the parents. This new economy is not only a fake promise that gives a new face to financial exploitation – it corrodes the very idea of a decent life, complete with family life and free time. The rebellions of Liza Jane and Seb, both remarkably intelligent and practical kids, beyond the obvious differences in circumstances and goals, are the cry for help and for mercy of a younger generation whose future looks bleaker than for their parents – even if Ricky claims, and sincerely believes, he does all it takes to make it better.
A clever, balanced screenplay by Paul Laverty and the exquisite observational skills of the director offer a broad sweep of the state of the British nation at the end of the 2010s. Realistic vignettes played by a cast effortlessly looking natural and credible pile up without feeling contrived or astute: these days of hard labor and hardscrabble life feel genuine, drawn from the stream of events many could witness or experience, far from being just a list of miseries. The various glimpses or examinations by the camera depict a society on the verge of social collapse. In this new Ken Loach film, promises of a better commonwealth are not kept and from the funny incidents between Ricky and his impatient customers to the numbing vision of an overstretched public hospital, everything points to the breach of the covenant between people and the economic system, with basic and essential bonds between people undermined.
Fairness and empathy are the main tenets underpinning Loach’s approach to the characters and the situations: the left-leaning director may be incensed, as it is often his case, but there is no lecturing and not even strong reliance on melodramatic twists in “Sorry We Missed You” (as it was the case with “I, Daniel Blake”). He just stays true to his characters and their hapless struggles with the new economy. And that should be enough to raise awkward questions about the audience’s habits.