No one speaks to the heart of the working world, and to every exploited category and class of humanity quite like Ken Loach, a British social realist whose passion for exposing injustices past and present has burned in films like his two Cannes Palme d’Or winners: “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006). Loach’s new film “Sorry We Missed You,” premiering in competition in this edition of the Cannes Film Festival, powerfully takes on the humiliations and hidden horrors that today’s ever-growing gig economy visits on those forced into its system.
“I, Daniel Blake” permitted the eponymous hero, an aging unemployed carpenter, his rousing, crowd-pleasing turn in triumphant rebellion, brief though it was. “Sorry We Missed You” is a far more harsh and bitter film, a prolonged cry of pain. A good and loving family’s slide toward tragedy begins when unemployed jack-of-all-trades Ricky (Kris Hitchen) lucks into what appears to be a golden opportunity. He signs on to become a “white van man,” a franchise contract driver making home deliveries for companies like Amazon.
“You don’t work for us, you work with us…master of your own destiny,” says Maloney (Ross Brewster), the blunt thuggish boss of the vast hive of a distribution warehouse in the city of Newcastle. Ricky discovers that working for himself has a price, starting with the purchase of a van and insurance. The alternative is to rent from the company at an exorbitant daily charge. A lengthy list of possible penalty fees and fines is reeled off, for everything from missing the precise time window on the scores of rush deliveries per day, to damaging or losing the all-important hand-held scanner. The scanner will detect his every move and every slip-up.
To afford a down payment on a van, Ricky sells the family’s only asset, his wife Abby’s little car. A contract employee herself, Abby (Debby Honeywood) is a visiting health care worker for the elderly. She must now visit her homebound clients by bus, adding many hours to her already long day. With their two kids, son Seb (Rhys Stone), 16, and Liza (Katie Proctor), 11, they are by and large a happy family. The kids know no different way of life, but Ricky and Abby still feel the ache of being renters because the house they were mortgaging was lost in a banking collapse when Seb was still a baby.
The film’s title, a line from a delivery form, takes on an ironic significance as it becomes increasingly evident that “missed” is the operative word in the trajectory of this script. Loach juggles the individual story lines of the family members, each struggling with a new order as a result of the essential ingredient that has been removed from their life as a family: time together with each other as a supportive interlocking unit.
Ricky now works a 12-hour day, six days a week, and can barely keep up; Abby also works days plus three nights a week. With little contact with their harried and stretched-thin parents, son Seb grows hostile and uncommunicative, skipping school and tagging in public places. Spirited little Liza is wetting the bed at night, panicked by the anger and shouting that has become the new norm at home. Circumstances close in around the family with developments that include Seb’s arrest for shoplifting spray paint, and the robbery of Ricky’s truck that leaves him injured and subsequently fined and deeply in debt to the company for damages and missing goods.
Loach’s exposition methods are not subtle, and are seldom seamless, but he is a master at making them work with emotional impact. A scene in which Abby, waiting at a bus stop, vents to a bystander after her supervisor berates her for getting off schedule by tending to a client she found covered in her own excrement, is enormously wrenching. “I have one rule, treat them like you would treat your mum.” “Who would leave their mum like that?” she cries, tears sprouting in frustration.
The ways in which the system of gig employment is irrevocably weighted against the contract employee are demonstrated brutally. Ricky’s wages are calculated per delivery, and he is expected to meet increasingly accelerated goals while assuming all of the personal and financial risk. If he falls behind, he is expendable. Abby’s loving compassion for her clients’ needs and emergencies is a commodity that has no value for the agency that demands that she tick off a set number of time-limited visits per day without fail.
Loach is a skilled storyteller who has a canny sense of how to bring an audience with his characters all the way. “Sorry We Missed You” is a timely contemporary tragedy, but it is also laced with humor, silly moments, and a very palpable sense of how real people live and feel. Anyone who has ever received an online order delivered by one of those white vans will never look at one the same way again.