Colin Revolting reviews director Ken Loach’s latest film, which centres on the family of two workers in the gig economy.
If anyone thinks the family home is some kind of sanctuary from the ravages of capitalism, they need to catch Ken Loach’s latest film.
Sorry We Missed You centres on a genuinely modern family. Mum, Abbie (played by Debbie Honeywood) is a carer, both at home and in other people’s homes. She rushes by bus for ‘appointments’ with ‘clients’ who need feeding, bathing, got out of or tucked into bed. Dad, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has lost regular employment in the building trades and buys a van to become a self-employed deliverer of parcels. Teenage son (Rhys Stone) has lots of creative energy and understandable anger about what is happening to his family and what his future is likely to hold. Younger daughter (Katie Proctor) is full of hope and hard work but is upset by the arguments and absences of mum and dad. The performances are generally so convincing that you have to remind yourself that they are acting rather than just living these lives.
This portrait of a family is one that is as old as capitalism and as current as the zero hours contracts and casualisation which are distorting it.
The film is based on real experience and research. Writer Paul Laverty spoke to many people working in the gig economy, such as caregivers and ‘white van men’. The film projects onto the screen, for one of the first times, some precarious areas of work. The workers are shown as atomised, with little collective activity and no mention of unions. This is one of the major absences from the story. Although trade unions today are not as strong or as ubiquitous as they were in past eras, in recent years there has been some expansion into previously ununionised areas. The delivery drivers and care workers in the film contrast with the outsourced cleaners and Deliveroo drivers who have fighting for union recognition and organising in recent years.
The absence of unions in this portrayal calls out for their need, whilst not pretending there is an easy way to develop and build union organisation.
Despite the atomisation of both Abbie and Ricky’s work, much of what they do in their jobs is about making connections with others (some fleeting, some repeating) and relies heavily on the workers’ abilities to do so.
In his body of work over the last 50-plus years Ken Loach has tackled historic moments of liberation glimpsed but scuppered (Irish independence, the Spanish revolution and British industrial struggle and many tales of everyday life – most recently I, Daniel Blake (reviewed by rs21 here, with a critique here) – to which this film is very much a companion piece.
In this film Loach and Laverty wanted to explore the stories they had heard when making I, Daniel Blake, in which many of the people visiting food banks were working but struggling financially. This led the filmmakers to follow the story of a family – parents at work and kids at school. This was where I found the film most affecting. The choices that the parents and children make are all very real indeed. We see the well-meaning parents who wish for their children to be safe and happy become oppressive and in one instance violent. We watch the children’s caring thoughts and feelings for themselves and their parents have impacts beyond what they can possibly perceive in advance.
With most of cinema currently relying on feel good factors, CGI and scary shocks, Loach holding up a mirror may come as something of a shock. A criticism heard of film-makers such as Loach is that they focus on the poor as the ‘other’ and create ‘poverty porn’. Some directors working in a similar vein could be accused of this but for my money Loach avoids that trap. The characters in this film have capabilities, potential and hints of ‘agency’ that are rare in cinema’s portrayal of working people. Despite everything we see their hopes and dreams, skills and talents, love and humour.
The film also importantly portrays the circumstances in which they live and the way these conditions impact on every aspect of their lives. The rules, controls, contracts and work commitments are shown as imposed, not self-created. There’s a focus in the film on technology, which as Loach says is ‘neutral itself, but depends on who controls it and whose benefit they use it for’. We watch as the mum’s phone and dad’s delivery ‘gun’ device are used to squeeze every drop of money-making potential out of them. But we also see how phones and technology are ways to keep the family in touch while rushing round doing their jobs and for the teenage son a crucial creative outlet.
Is there any hope here? There are glimpses. Dad and daughter sharing a sandwich in the sunshine, mum swearing enough is enough, the son showing he cares despite everything. Hope is portrayed as potential – especially in the younger generation. From Kes onwards Ken Loach has been known for portraying young people with real empathy and depth. The teenage son Seb is growing disenchanted with formal education whilst pursuing his own creative ambitions with peers. They are shown to have strong friendship bonds offering creativity, fun and support. 11 year old Lisa Jane is doing well at school but is being affected by the way outside pressures are impacting on the family. Both are shown with the good sense and clear sight that their generation has displayed in the school strikes for climate.
Spoiler alert. There is no happy ending.
Watching this harsh but brutally honest film I was left with one major conclusion. Family life can offer some sanctuary from the ravages of work, but the nuclear family – created by capitalism – is also an oppressive hierarchical prison for all of us who live in a version of it. Let’s tear down the walls, along with the system that built them. We won’t be sorry and we won’t miss them.
Sorry We Missed You, directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty and produced by Rebecca O’Brien, is on at cinemas across the UK. Low-cost community screenings can be arranged through the distributor, eOne.