Since the global financial crisis in 2008, there has been a significant increase in the amount of contract, temporary and freelance work - dubbed the "gig economy". Workers say the strongest motivation for gig work was earning extra money, flexibility of hours and "being my own boss". The most common complaints are "earning a fair income" and the costs and fees of the platform. Malaise is endemic in the UK as workers are forced to take very low paid, zero-hours contract jobs only to slip further down the ladder.
Ken Loach is the foremost British filmmaker to scrutinise the problems ordinary workers and their families have to address each day. His latest film, 'Sorry We Missed You', paints an angry picture of the modern gig economy as well as a delicate portrait of a loving family on the verge of implosion. Like 'I, Daniel Blake', Loach's earlier film about the merciless welfare system, 'Sorry We Missed You' is set in the depressed city of Newcastle in England's northeast, with its grim concrete flyovers, council flats, empty lots and Victorian terraces (there are moments of urban beauty thanks to Robbie Ryan's photography). Both films share the concern with the way ordinary, decent peoples' lives are jeopardised by a system that has built indifference into the very structure that supports it.
The family lives in cramped rented accommodation in a dilapidated terraced house. Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is a home care nurse, paying visits to the old and disabled. She cleans and feeds them, offering comfort within the brief time allocated for each. Her husband Ricky (played by self-employed plumber and part-time actor Kris Hitchen) is a former builder who has made the leap into the gig economy by getting himself a van (by convincing his wife to sell her car). The goal of the couple is to save up enough money to buy a house, but Ricky fails to see that he's signed a Faustian pact for a job with no contract, holidays, sick pay or benefits.
He is immediately placed on a hamster wheel of 14-hour days, rushing to meet delivery targets, his journey monitored by a high-tech scanner, a plastic bottle sitting his van so he can take a piss without losing time. Hulking warehouse chief Maloney (Ross Brewster) insists that Ricky is his own boss, but proudly describes himself as the "biggest cunt you will ever meet" and is ready to deliver crushing fines to his drivers should anyone underperform.
When money is so tight, everything has a domino effect. Ricky paid for the van by selling Abby's car, so she has to take the bus to make her own work rounds. Abby doesn't get paid for extra time spent making sure her elderly patients are left clean and safe. Ricky himself is a slave to delivery schedules. As a result, both parents leave the house early and get home late, just at a time when 16-year-old Seb (Rhys Stone) is skipping school, hanging with a graffiti crew and shoplifting spraypaint canisters. He gets arrested by the police, Ricky has to take time off work to pick his son up, gets a fine, ends up owing the delivery company money and working more hours. Though she's the youngest, it's Liza Jae (Katie Proctor) who is the peacekeeper of the family. But the conflict within the home begins to have a physical and mental impact on her, too. "We're drowning in quicksand," proclaims Abby. "The harder we work, the more hours we do, we just sink further and further into this big hole."
It sounds depressing, but there is strong vein of humour in 'Sorry We Missed You' and the characters (played by inexperienced actors) are likeable. However, this also makes the family's pain even more heartbreakingly real.
It sounds depressing, but there is a strong vein of humour in 'Sorry We Missed You' and the characters (played by inexperienced actors) are likeable. However, this also makes the family's pain even more heartbreakingly real. Coupled with the unfeeling mentality of the faceless corporations looming over them, Ricky and Seb's personal failings play a part in the crisis that rocks the family; the older man has a temper and a lack of common sense; his intelligent son's ambition has been killed because he can see the non-stop cycle of debt that lies ahead of him if he gets accepted into university.
'Sorry We Missed You' is a film about family dynamics as much as it is about what we sacrifice as a society for the convenience of next-day home deliveries. It's in the quiet observation of working-class parents and their children that 83-year-old Ken Loach's latest film hits its nuanced, deeply emotional notes.