Since the sixties, the no-nonsense director Ken Loach has been the face of British social-realist cinema. He captures the grit of working-class life and opposes fake, romantic sentimentality. Sorry We Missed You — Loach’s latest and maybe last film about the troubling realities of the gig economy — encapsulates the blunt, slice-of-life structure that makes the director so appealing. He ignores artifice where many would pile it on; he rarely raises the music during emotional scenes; he doesn’t force close-ups of teary-eyed actors. The feelings felt in Sorry We Missed You rise in reaction to the bare bones of a horrific situation.
Like Loach’s previous Cannes-winning drama I, Daniel Blake, which captured the realities of the British benefits system, Sorry We Missed You gradually sinks into a cesspool of real-life despair. Ricky (Kris Hitchen) opens the film, interviewing for a driving job at a van depot in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, rattling off every job he’s had. He sits opposite the manager, Gavin (Ross Brewster), who approaches his job like a bureaucratic fascist: proclaiming himself, proudly, as the ‘patron saint of nasty bastards’.
Gavin doesn’t care about the long hours or troubles at home, and he despises whining. If Ricky doesn’t deliver packages within a specific time frame (‘precisors’), he won’t get paid. But still, Gavin dresses up the job, claiming that Ricky would be part of a ‘franchise’: ‘You don’t work for us, you work with us’.
But Ricky needs the money, he has no choice. Screenwriter Paul Laverty (Loach’s regular) follows Ricky, who relies on an all-important black scanner to track his deliveries day-to-day, minute-to-minute. If he misses one, he’s out. The pressure rises, and so does the dread. Ricky’s wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is in a similar predicament, working as a nurse who treats patients in their houses at specific times. Both of their schedules hinder their time spent at home, which affects their relationship with their kids.
This lack of communication impacts the development of their eldest son Seb (Rhys Stone), who often skips school and sprays graffiti on walls and white spaces in town. Like most of the performances in Sorry We Missed You, Stone’s performance hits with such natural force — it’s disorienting. He manages to show over-caring and carelessness in the same blank expressions and shrugged shoulders. Katie Procter, playing the youngest child Lisa Jane, achieves a similar subtlety but with a calmer, more intelligent approach; before finally exploding towards the end.
The film occasionally falls into the realist actor trap, where too much non-acting can yank you out of the story. Ross Brewster, playing Gavin, often just states his lines as given. But, for the most part, every sigh and shout and laugh breathe a harsh reality to these characters, mixing beautifully with Robbie Ryan’s blunt, documentary-like visuals.
Despite both parents claiming that things will get better in the future — that they just need to get this and that done — everything just gets worse. The unreachable equilibrium they’re working for, that everybody’s working for, drifts further and further out the harder they work. It’s an almost joyless existence; but, thankfully, Laverty doesn’t unload constant torrents of misery like in I, Daniel Blake. In Sorry We Missed You, little moments of genuine, unforced fun shine through — mostly involving the kids, who, when Seb’s not being a pain, offer some light in the grey.
Loach and Laverty’s efforts reflect their aim: to state a problem in society and to show how horrible that problem can be. They don’t poke too much into the politics of the gig economy, but they drop straight into the houses of those affected by it. Sorry We Missed You unveils the probable story behind the hands that give you Amazon parcels and request a signature. And maybe, I hope, viewers will consider those stories before complaining about another delayed delivery.
Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas from Friday 1 November