The English director Ken Loach has the rare position of being known chiefly for his leftist politics, and how he works with screenwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien to bring the lives of working-class people to screen without a tinge of nostalgia.
His latest film, Sorry We Missed You, follows a working-class Newcastle family, including the long-unemployed Ricky; his wife, Abbie, a home care worker; and their children, the rebellious Seb and clever Liza Jane. A few years out of the 2008 global financial crash, the family is buried under a pile of seemingly insurmountable debt, having taken on loans and credit to survive. Ricky wants to fast-track the family back to financial fitness, and so takes a package-delivery job, replete with a grueling 14-hour-day schedule, punitive digital surveillance, and zero company (or “client,” as the corporate overlords must be called) liability.
The power of the film is not only in the painful realism with which it depicts inhumane working conditions and the neoliberal, technocratic logic that shape them, but also in its attention to the often humorous, lighthearted, and tender dynamics of a family and the community around them. Loach (and screenwriter Laverty) understood that while most people “put on a front at the job, when you’re at home, that’s when feelings emerge,” offers Loach. “At home—that’s when people lose it.” Sorry We Missed You is as much about care as it is abuse, and as much about the insight and intelligence of working-class people as it is about the various manipulations and distortions the ruling classes (and their henchmen) place upon them.
But, of course, the family isn’t made up of angels and martyrs—their circumstances are both structural and personal. Ricky seems to buy into the promises of the gig economy, even as he appears steamrolled by its overwhelming precariousness. By focusing on one family, Loach explained, the film is able to trace “how workers changed over the last 40 years since [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher’s determination to cut their living standards.”
At the beginning of the film, the delivery company supervisor asks Ricky if he’s “ever been on the dole.” Ricky confidently says he would “rather die” than be on welfare. As the film goes on, this point of view starts to feel not merely conservative but extreme. I asked Loach about Ricky’s characterization—in a social-welfare state like the U.K., why would a man rather risk working himself to death than accept the government benefits his family’s taxes pay for?
The director replied that in a country like the U.K., where health care is free and there is comparatively robust public housing (from the point of view of an American), the gig economy itself leverages right-wing propaganda—stemming from Thatcherism—to attract workers. In this framework, needing help is shameful, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is the only path with integrity. Forget that the financial crisis was caused by the very banks and bankers that make home ownership an impossibility for many—you didn’t survive it, and it’s your job to make up for the ground you’ve lost.
“The BBC is a right-wing org,” Loach told me; even though the broadcasting company is primarily publicly funded, he says its programs tend to promote propaganda about entrepreneurship. And what’s more, when people do seek help, as Loach’s previous film I, Daniel Blake, explored, “social support is so begrudging.”
Abbie’s own job requires her to keep long hours and call the people she cares for “clients,” but she’s still skeptical about Ricky’s perspective and is worried about what a 14-hour work day for him (and 10-hour work day for her) will do to the family. However, Abbie is also a professional listener, and hears Ricky’s desperation to build the kind of life he can be proud of. Ricky’s new job then becomes a kind of family effort, predictably with the wife and mother filling in the emotional void, and their precocious pre-adolescent daughter filling the domestic one. Seb, the family’s increasingly alienated son, instead turns to art, skipping school and coming up with elaborate plots with a diverse group of misfit friends to tag the neighborhood. We also see Seb care for a female friend, Freddie, who is abused at home and by her peers, and earnestly share his work with his little sister; but he’s unable to connect with his parents, whom he sees as examples of failure, having bought into a system that doesn’t care about them.
By not only centering Ricky and Abbie, but also Seb and Liza Jane—who in one scene, simply and brilliantly breaks down the contradictions at the heart of corporate software engineering—Laverty gives the family much to say to each other, without falling into cliche or employing shorthand. As a result, we feel that we know this family in their specificity, and not merely as avatars for an idea about the harsh cynicism of the gig economy. Loach pointed out to me that “they’re special people, not generalized people.”
Through the film’s characterizations, it becomes clear that the gig economy in fact seeks to degrade what gives financially unhappy families their particularities, until they are ground into efficient dust—the family struggles both against and for this imperative through individual and collective methods. And, as a result, one might infer that the climate struggles, too: “This isn’t in the film, because it’s not something the characters are thinking about, but every individual item you want to buy is going to be driven to you by a man in a van run off of fossil fuels. This economy is destroying people and the environment.”
Films that explicitly critique conservative, yet popular, political ideologies are often either received begrudgingly by critics who think cinema should be above everyday politics or overpraised by guilty reviewers who indulge in the pathos of characters they see as victims. Sorry We Missed You far exceeds I, Daniel Blake, because it makes both observational postures difficult to hold. This time, Loach is interested in making his character’s affinities and desires as present as their strains and struggles, and resists the ease of directing a film primarily for an outsider audience of sympathetic professionals and public servants. In that way, Sorry We Missed You at first appears quiet, but resounds in its every move.
And as for the Americans, gigging away without even the notion of a social safety net? At the end of our phone call, Loach sweetly confides in me about the vicarious hopes of a post-Corbyn British left: “We’re all rooting for Bernie over here.”