For more than 50 years, filmmaker Ken Loach has been making films about the plight of working people in his native England. It is a sign then, of both his unwavering commitment to the cause and our failure to enact meaningful change for workers, that his films seem to get more relevant by the day. Still, he allows room to adjust to new realities, and his last two films have involved structural challenges unique to the 21st century within his tragically timeless themes. I, Daniel Blake (2016) shined a light on poverty among the elderly, with a special eye toward how rapid technological advances have left them unprepared for the workforce.

With his latest, Sorry We Missed You, Loach has set his sights on the gig economy. Ricky (Kris Hitchen), struggling to get out from under crushing debt and support his family, takes a new job as a driver for a parcel delivery company with an enticing business structure. In the opening scene, his new boss lays out the upside, selling him hard on the freedom and flexibility of being an “owner-driver franchisee,” and skipping the lack of health insurance, long hours, and fines for lateness. Ricky gets in deeper right away when he decides to buy his own van, rather than rent one from the company at a higher monthly cost. The new debt locks him into a job and company he knows almost nothing about. It’s a testament to how deftly Loach conveys the tight spot he is in that we can understand his choice, while also immediately recognizing exactly how it will go wrong.

The rocky path the film follows may be predictable from its opening moments, but its precise humanism and fresh details make Sorry We Missed You a riveting watch. Ricky has initial success as a driver, but without the support of a full-time employer, small complications mutate into potential disasters. He has sold his wife’s car to buy the van, which forces her to take the bus to her job as a home health care worker, leaving the children home alone to fend for themselves for longer each day. Their teenage son (Rhys Stone) runs afoul of his teachers and eventually the police, repeatedly pulling his parents away from their jobs to bail him out of trouble. It’s a cruel and vicious cycle. The more hours they miss, the more they must make up, and their children end up emotionally neglected either way.

It’s a tough watch, but it never feels unproductive, especially as part-time and contract employees off-screen are being hit hard by COVID-19 closures. We see the unemployment number rise and read about relief funds for workers, but cinema has a unique ability to put a human face to the statistics. Sorry We Missed You brilliantly dramatizes the way so many working families are one mistake away from total tragedy, and how the anxiety associated with the tenuousness of their existence can often facilitate their doom. 

It may not sound like the movie you need right now—many viewers are looking for comfort, not a lesson in life’s hard realities—but Sorry We Missed You is not the endurance test it appears to be. Loach and his committed cast of actors find occasional moments of humor amidst their pain, and the film, despite the sorrow it portrays, is strangely satisfying. Like other great works of social realism, it conveys the tragedy of the poor with such empathy that it invites you, if only for a short time, to willingly share their burden. 

Sorry We Missed You is available to view at Kino Marquee to April 23.

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