Movie Review: Working and going under in the gig economy, “Sorry We Missed You”

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Ken Loach is the Scorsese of feature film realism, the Tarantino of naturalistic, lived-in dialogue, the Claire Denis of movies built on characters who show us life, as it happens.

His milieu is typically Britain’s working class, which he celebrates even as he shows its struggle and a system — capitalism — that has increasingly beaten it down since he first broke out with films such as “Poor Cow” and “Kes” in the ’60s, and in the decades since.

Unknown or inexperienced actors speaking thickly-accented working class argot, his movies sometimes come with subtitles — because they need them.

“Sorry We Missed You” is Loach’s intimate, scathing take on life in the “gig economy,” a family not getting ahead or even holding its own, but swimming as frantically as it can even as they spiral down the drain. It’s his best film in years, and with a resume that includes “My Name is Joe” and “The Angel’s Share,” that’s saying something.

Ricky Turner (Kris Kitchen) has worked in manual labor most of his life. Now, he’s ready to “be me own boss.” He’s hiring on as a parcel delivery “contractor” for PDF shipping. He gets the “owner-driver franchisee” from Maloney (Ross Brewster), but he has to flinch at every cost he’s expected to incur. Buy a van, or rent one (at extortionate rates) from PDF.

A hard talk with his home healthcare worker wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood). If they could just sell her car, he could get a van. “Just take the bus,” he pleads. And peacekeeper Abby agrees.

But with her working from 7:30 A.M. to 9 p.m., and him starting earlier and getting home almost as late, “family time” may be the ultimate sacrifice. Not a problem for studious tween Liza (Katie Proctor). Teenage Sebastian, Seb (Rhys Stone) is already lost, smart enough to do the math to see what little life holds to someone his age and refusing to buy in.

He’s cutting school so that he and his friends can tag the city with their graffiti, videoing their deeds as they do. So even as Ricky is being lectured on what everything costs, how his company-issued scanner will be his lifeblood, how “hit your ETAs,” prioritize “your precisors” (items like phones, etc., that have to be delivered at a specific time) and don’t take anything bathroom breaks (Here’s an empty water bottle, mate.), we can see the thin thread between the Turners and ruin stretching, with Seb blithely yanking at it for attention.

Abby’s compassion is captured in home visit after home visit, coping with the inform, the insane (feces flinging, scratching), the embittered and depressed even as her employer exploits her good heart and good nature in its pleading demands.

She’s made this home one where children are indulged and treated as adults, and Seb’s open rebellion seems a consequence. There’s no punishment meted out for disrespect, no corporal punishment for indifference, selfishness and endangering the entire family and not just his future.

Dad’s “Just give yourself some choices, mate” can’t even get the kid to look up from the phone.

Seb isn’t the best-drawn character here. He seems politically astute in sizing up the working class dream that was put on life support under Thatcher and has deteriorated ever sense. But the graffiti he risks all for isn’t political, and his myopic disregard for his family seems somewhat contrived, out of character.

Loach and his longtime screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty give Darwinian capitalism its speech, coming from the mouth of Maloney, who explains — in the bluntest terms — how he keeps them all employed by working them until they doze off at the wheel. It’s because “the Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards” has to, or their clients will use another service.

Abby might be the first to see the cost their hours and thin finances are having on their lives, but Ricky voices the exhausted complaint against income inequality heard the world over when he mutters, “Everything is out of whack.”

The story’s predictable arc feels real when it is at its bleakest. Families disintegrate under these conditions. Check divorce filings in any town where big employers fail and folks grasp at “gig economy” straws to get by.

Loach and Laverty and their characters thrive when the margin of error is at its thinnest. Conversely, moments that force them appreciate the talent of the boy who is burning the family down in this their darkest hour seem melodramatic and naive.

But that “You never give up on your kid” ethos? That’s as real as rain.

From its pun title (the sticker you leave for a failed delivery) that really means the life the disenfranchised working class family is losing, to the gritty realism of working life in an economy that only “works” for the one-percent, “Sorry We Missed You” sounds an alarm — by turns desperate and simplistic. As Loach & Co. have been sounding it for decades, one wonders if anybody is still listening, as much as we should be.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity

Cast: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor and Ross Brewster

Credits: Directed by Ken Loach, scripted by Paul Laverty. A Zeitgeist release.

Running time: 1:41

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