For more than five decades, Ken Loach has been using his art as a potent medium to tell a routine yet important story of working-class people, highlighting the struggle that they have to face every day while unsubtly exposing how unfair our economic system is. Where his 2016 Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake takes a direct hit toward British pensions and benefits system, his latest feature Sorry We Missed You, which was premiered at last year Cannes Film Festival, concerns the human cost of gig economy and the misery that zero-hour contracts inflicts upon workers. This follow-up is even more powerful and upsetting, with strong performances from the cast and a gut-wrenching script from his regular collaborator Paul Laverty.
Set in Newcastle, the film follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a struggling dad of two who is desperate for any kind of work, and his family as they fall apart under the burden of modern slavery. When we first meet him, he’s on a job interview for the position of delivery van driver and about to finally break his cycle of unemployment after agreeing to the terms and conditions that his soon-to-be manager, Maloney (Ross Brewster), explains. “You don’t work for us, you work with us,” he says. Ricky is also promised that in two years, if he’s able to fulfill his work quota, he can pay off the rest of his mortgage and finally owns his little house. Maloney also tells him that this job is self-employed, and that he will be an owner-driver, not an employee. Ricky is instantly tempted by these promises.
Of course, it’s all just a lie meant to hide the fact that the work system is actually built upon slavery. Ricky even has to buy his own van because the company doesn’t supply one. And there are a lot of protocols and regulations that Ricky has to obey. Being left with no choice, Ricky continues this job. He sells his wife’s car in order to get the van. And for more than twelve hours, Ricky has to deliver one package after another without any break. One of his co-workers suggests that he always bring a plastic bottle in case he needs to urinate. Much of the film is spent on observing Ricky as he’s delivering the packages, and Loach makes sure that we follow him every step of the way to make sure we know how exhausting his job is.
Not all of his packages recipients are nice, some of them are rude and condescending. But he simply has no time to argue. The deadline is always chasing him. If he misses one day of work, he has to find a replacement driver so that he won’t have to pay the money that his company loses due to his absence. It’s through these mundane moments that Sorry We Missed You shows us how terrible the industry that Ricky is in. But just like in his previous works, Loach isn’t necessarily interested in just protesting the system as if he wants to dedicate his art only to criticize similar companies like Amazon and Apple. He, in fact, always cares about the people in it and the ramifications of their struggle.
In Ricky’s case, Loach focuses on the ramifications of this system on his family. While he’s busy spending more than half of his days on the road, his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) also has to deal with the same difficulties. She works as a caregiver to old people whose homes are spread all across London. Without her car, Abby has to rely on the city bus so that she can meet all of her deadlines. But the company she works for does not exactly cover all the travel fare. They just care about her finishing her job, not how she finishes it. On top of that, the payment system of her company is based on how many appointments she can make. So with the time that she’s already spent on the bus, Abby is forced to sacrifice both of the time she spends with her clients and the time she spends with her family. Just like her husband, Abby is practically exploited by the system, but she has no other choice than to continue being oppressed by her company.
The cost that Abby and Ricky have to pay is not just their health, but also the time that they can, and need to, spend with their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jone (Katie Proctor). At home, Liza has to act like an adult. She takes care of her brother, wakes him up, and reminds him to go to school because both Abby and Ricky have already gone in the morning. But it’s clear that even though Liza does her best to be her parents’ replacement to her older brother, Seb is struggling to accept the fact that they’ve never been there to take care of him. He starts skipping school, painting graffiti in the street with his friends, and even shoplifting.
As the tensions between Seb and his parents rise — particularly with his dad — Sorry We Missed You shows us how the gig economy and modern slavery that both Ricky and Abby are facing can wreck the health of a family dynamic. Moments are stolen while their mortgage is still far from getting paid off, and there’s really nothing they can do to satisfy both their works and personal lives. If Ricky and Abby want to keep their jobs, they have to sacrifice their family time. and if they want to perfectly fulfill their roles as parents, they have to sacrifice their jobs, which is not a good option either. Though what Seb’s doing throughout the second half of the film, testing the patience of his parents, is problematic, the movie asks us to empathize with him and see the fallout as more of the crippling impact that the economic system caused, not due to Ricky and Abbey’s absence.
It’s very stirring and heartbreaking to see the final moment of the movie where Ricky, even when he’s literally covered in bandages and his family asks him to take a little time to rest from work, he still goes to drive his van and deliver packages so that he won’t have to pay all the losses that his company is having due to his absence. “I’ve got to go to work, I haven’t got a choice,” he says as Abby, Liza, and Seb try to stop him. In the end, there’s no resolution or any triumphant moments in the movie. Everything is bleak. Ricky has to go back to work, and nothing will ever change, but that’s not because Loach wants to make a sad ending, he just simply states the fact of what’s going on everywhere. The gig economy system where everyone is promised to be independent workers without any rules is actually just a branding. They will always be dehumanized by the system that prioritizes corporate dominance over humanity. That is the powerful message of Sorry We Missed You, and if you don’t feel worried after watching this movie, maybe you’re one of the problems too.
Reyzando Nawara is a passionate Indonesian based film and TV enthusiast who enjoys to write and discuss about cinema or anything TV-related. Big fan of Mia Hansen-Løve, Alex Ross Perry, and Noah Baumbach.