“You don’t work for us, you work with us.” That’s the pitch Maloney (Ross Brewster) makes for the exciting new job opportunity he dangles in the opening scene of Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach’s latest lament for the downtrodden masses. Maloney, who has the physique and nature of the most least forgiving personal trainer, is a supervisor at a package delivery company that independently contracts all its drivers — it’s like UPS by the way of Uber. What he’s selling is the ideal of professional autonomy. Drive your own van! Own your own franchise! Be your own boss! To Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), it all sounds like a dream come true. Ricky, after all, has spent his whole life in a slew of different work fields, breaking his back for companies that saw him and his labor as disposable. It’s about time he tossed off the shackles of subordination and became, in Maloney’s well-chosen words, “the master of his destiny.”
You don’t need to be a used and abused cog of the gig economy to suspect that his grand promise of self-employment is a lie — that Ricky’s delusions of independence and upward mobility will inevitably be shattered. He is, after all, the main character in a Ken Loach movie: honest, industrious, destined to suffer for the sins of a pitiless society. Loach, the biggest beating heart in the English film industry, has spent most of his half-century career in movies and television sticking up for the little guy, for the working men and women of his country. In recent years, that noble vital has consumed all other aspects of his work and Sorry We Missed You fits cleanly into the agitprop tradition. But for a good long while, anyway, it does offer the kind of involving everyday texture that Loach excels at when he’s not simply steering the steamroller over his characters to make a point about society’s ills.
Ricky, as we quickly learn, is the head of the household, one that’s been struggling ever since the 2008 financial collapse, which effectively destroyed their plan to buy their own home. To put a deposit on the big white van he’ll need for his new career, Ricky talks his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), into selling her car — a decision that makes daily life a little trickier for her. Abbie has her own version of “flexible” zero-hour contract work: She hops all over town to care for the elderly and people with disabilities, picking up clients through an agency that often minimizes her contact with the families. Ricky and Abbie have two children they barely see because they’re always on the clock. While preteen Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) tries to put on a happy face, even as she absorbs her parents’ stress like a sponge, sixteen-year-old Seb (Rhys Stone) acts out, cutting class to go tagging with his friends.
Like any good polemicist, Loach understands empathy as something he has to earn. This early stretch of the film, episodic and carefully observed, successfully bonds us to the plight of the Turners. There’s an economy to the storytelling and an affecting sting to some of the moments the filmmaker singles out, like Liza Jane cleaning up around her slumbering folks or Abbie fighting through her exhaustion to express kindness to an ashamed client. And Loach locates some precious humor, a tonic for characters and audience alike, in Ricky’s front-door encounters with his customers, at one point stopping the movie cold for some amusingly heated sparring between rival soccer fans. As usual, the director’s assembled a first-rate cast: Hitchen and Honeywood make their characters’ frustrations palpable, trying to hold onto hope under their occupational and professional demands. The real find may be Stone, who perfectly conveys the stubborn selfishness of a teen smartass, while also communicating what Seb is really rebelling against: the nonstop grind and hustle that awaits him, should he follow the same path as his parents.
The movie does come up with some blunter developments but those probably wouldn’t hit as hard without such compelling actors. But he’s also working again with long collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty. Together, they again pile onto their working-class protagonists quite relentlessly — turning them into everyday martyrs, crushed into fine dust by the grinding wheels of capitalist exploitation — that any genuine poignancy gets close to becoming self-parody. Everything that could go wrong does, and by the time Sorry We Missed You is literally dousing Ricky in piss, you have to wonder if it’s really society, and not just the screenplay, stacking the deck against the Turners.
It’s that didactic; to the point that the Turners may as well break the fourth wall and explain how terrible it is that companies — and parts of society as a whole — exploits desperate workers by tricking them into shouldering the burden of employment. Still, there’s many jabs that come with a lot of bite. It can be easy to dismiss Loach’s formulaic approach, and the pressing concerns he embeds in his movies each time, but he excels at folding those themes into narratives far better than your average agitprop. The ideas operate in tandem with genuine pathos and an authentic core. While it doesn’t break new ground for Ken Loach, Sorry We Missed You steadily remains bluntly persuasive and engrossing for a timely, passionate, and resonant economical tale.