Ken Loach and Paul Laverty present another great film about working class life: a portrait of an English family having to find a way to support themselves and each other in the new “gig” economy.
A middle aged man is talking about his employment history in a job interview, reciting a litany of previous jobs. He then says, “I’d rather work on my own and be my own boss.” The interviewer picks up on that and says, “You won’t be working for us, you’ll be working with us.” The company referred to is a UPS-type delivery service in northern England, which tells the drivers that they are like franchise owners that can determine their own destiny depending on how well they do. This is an example of what is now being called the “gig economy,” and the reality differs sharply from the hype.
The man being interviewed is a married father of two named Ricky, played by Kris Hitchen, and the film is Sorry We Missed You, the latest from the director-screenwriter team of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty. Ricky is trying to get out of a rut where he could never seem to get ahead, and this job seems to offer him a chance. His wife Abbie, played by Debbie Honeywood, is a home health aid, someone who provides care for disabled and elderly people in their homes. Ricky has to buy a van for his new job, which means selling the family car, forcing Abbie to take the bus to her home visits, but it will all be better once Ricky settles in and starts making more money. Right?
As the film gradually reveals, progress is not so easy. The delivery company imposes punishing schedules on its drivers, with hand held routing devices tracking their every move. And Ricky is given another piece of equipment—a bottle to pee in while on the road, because there’s not enough time for breaks. Abbie has no sick or vacation time, is not paid for travel, and has to service a lot of clients just to earn enough.
The brilliance of this film is that all this is conveyed on the margins of the story rather than emphasized dramatically. The central narrative is about Ricky and Abby’s family life with their kids. Their teenage son Seb is becoming increasingly withdrawn, glued to a cell phone and neglecting school. Their young daughter has a special bond with Dad, yet the situation makes it hard for her to get around to her activities as well. Both parents regret being forced to spend so much time away from the kids. Despite the intense demands of work, the film conveys a deep sense of compassion within this family unit. The excellent acting helps us believe in these people and their emotions and struggles. They have their problems, and young Seb’s rebellion creates more, but they are essentially kind, hard-working people who deserve better than what this outsourced economy offers them. This glimpse into the lives of ordinary working folk feels real, emotionally honest, and full of courage.
The title, Sorry We Missed You is taken from the notes left by a delivery person at homes where people aren’t there to receive a package. I think it also has a double meaning. The social order’s failure to protect the people who perform its labor seems like an opportunity missed, a mass leaving behind of the millions of non-wealthy people who make up the population of the country and the world.
Ken Loach, now in his 80s, has been almost alone in his dedication to making films about the working class for almost sixty years. The path to a movie’s financial success is usually escapism, and of course it’s entertaining to be taken out of ourselves with stories of crime, adventure, romance, or battle. But the fact that escapism is so often considered the only option in movies begs the question, why are our lives so hard that our only choice in films would be to escape through fantasy? Loach and Laverty fashion movies, like this one, that find drama and meaning in the real lives of human beings, a great percentage of those lives being taken up by work, and time and again they’ve found characters in this real world whose stories are worth telling. Sorry We Missed You is one of their best—we remember the genuineness of the people most of all, and whatever social messages we receive come from that sense of humanity.