Cannes 2019 review: Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)

When that parcel delivery guy comes to your door, do you ever think about his work conditions? To be frank, neither do I. But we should, says Ken Loach, and rightfully so. This sector is one of many taken over by the so-called ‘gig economy’: people freelance as independent contractors for companies that historically would have employees for the same work. This is beneficial for the companies, as they don’t have to pay redundancy payments, holidays, or sickness pay, and the contractors have less protection in legal disputes. But of course it is far from beneficial for the people doing the work.

Ricky Turner has been in and out of jobs for as long as he can remember. Now, with the ‘app revolution’ he sees an opportunity coming his way to provide more stability for his wife Abby and his two children Seb and Liza Jane. So he takes a gamble: he sells off their car for a down payment on a van, and starts delivering parcels. Sure, it’s six days a week, fourteen hours a day, and Abby will have to take public transport to get to her clients in her home care job now that the car is gone, but after a year or two they should have enough money to get somebody else in to do the driving. It’s just temporary.

The plan backfires. With both parents running from job to job and spending too much time away from home and family, and a rebellious teenage son who is more interested in graffiti than school, problems and stress soon start to pile up, and Ricky and Abby are getting close to breaking point. Will their life of working all the time ruin the family, or can they manage to turn it around?

Ken Loach has always been a political filmmaker to the very left of the spectrum. In Sorry We Missed You he continues on the path that he mapped out a few years ago with the Palme-winning I, Daniel Blake, in tackling today’s economic miseries of the lower and middle classes. On the surface, Ricky and Abby are a middle-class family: they don’t live in abject poverty, both have jobs, and the children are well provided for. But to keep that all up they have to work too much and stretch themselves thin to remain a functioning family, and this is a problem Loach (and others; see the rise of people like Bernie Sanders in the US) sees as detrimental for society and a cause of the gains the far right has made in recent years. And the only way Loach knows to handle this problem is to make films about it. He will never be a visual filmmaker, but he wants to tell stories about what he perceives as social injustices.

Sorry We Missed You succinctly lays out the situation Ricky and his family are in. In Loach’s typical style, scenes are rarely fully introduced or part of a fluid narrative, but they get the message across. The heavy lifting in the film is done by the acting, the dialogue, and the recognizability of the situations. Standouts in the cast are Debbie Honeywood as the soft-spoken Abby, trying to keep her family together, and Katie Proctor as the smart Liza Jane, bubbly on the outside but deeply affected by her parents’ problems on the inside.

The trouble with Sorry We Missed You is that much of the film goes by without incident, because the pressure builds under the surface, perhaps too far under the surface. This makes the first act a bit tedious, although perhaps that comes from an audience not being in the same position as the characters, and the characters only slowly being coloured in. Loach uses his films as vessels for his political messaging, which can at times come off as preachy, so it is somewhat surprising that he doesn’t delve into what some people deride as ‘poverty porn’ sooner in the film. That renders Sorry We Missed You as unbalanced and makes its relatively short runtime still feel long. A little more editing or a bit of fleshing out of the earlier scenes would have worked better. Still, the powerful last act of the film at least ensures that we understand what Loach wants to get across: if we go on squeezing every last drop out of people like this, at some point they will break.