'Sorry We Missed You': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
A sustained emotional crescendo of quiet devastation.

Three years after winning the Palme d'Or with 'I, Daniel Blake,' director Ken Loach returns to Cannes with this domestic drama about a Newcastle family battling to get ahead.

Over more than half a century of prolific socially and politically engaged filmmaking, Ken Loach has trained his clear-eyed, compassionate gaze on the everyday struggles of the British working class. At age 82, he's doing some of his strongest work in Sorry We Missed You, a drama of such searing human empathy and quotidian heartbreak that its powerful climactic scenes actually impede your breathing. A companion piece to 2016's I, Daniel Blake, which dealt with the inherent unfairness of the state welfare and benefits system, the riveting new film lays bare the unsparing predation of a gig economy in which even the staunchest work ethic is no match for uncooperative reality.

Loach won his second Palme d'Or at Cannes with I, Daniel Blake, which went on to have a thriving post-theatrical life in U.K. community screenings and fundraisers, even becoming a reference point in parliament. This follow-up arguably is even more affecting, with the director's regular screenwriter Paul Laverty refraining from his occasional tendency to taint dramatic integrity with soapbox didacticism.

Simply shifting the focus from beleaguered individuals to a young family beset with domestic problems exacerbated by their financial hardships makes for a more sustained emotional gut punch. The steady build of despair in the film's second half is masterful in its execution. And the matter-of-fact bleakness of the open ending will rip you apart.

Rick (Kris Hitchen) and Abby (Debbie Honeywood) could not be a more ordinary couple. They love each other and care deeply for their children, 11-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) and her brother Seb (Rhys Stone), 15. But since their mortgage agreement on a first home purchase fell victim to the global banking crisis ten years earlier, and Ricky lost his construction job, they have lived paycheck to paycheck, often doing temporary work, moving around the northern city of Newcastle upon Tyne in rental housing. Ricky seizes on an opportunity he's convinced can dig them out of their debt hole and facilitate their humble dream of owning their own home.

Loach and Laverty waste no time on exposition, opening with Ricky's job interview heard over a black screen. He makes a favorable impression on Maloney (Ross Brewster, terrific), the manager of a busy parcel delivery depot, who lays out the terms of the company's driver "franchisee" agreement as a golden path to financial independence and limitless earning capacity. Maloney sells Ricky on the idea of being "master of his own destiny," and while Abby is more circumspect, immediately wary of the long hours he'll be working and the increased debt load they'll be taking on for him to buy his own van, she reluctantly gets on board.

Abby's consent involves her selling the car she depends on to get around on her job as a homecare worker, tending to the elderly or handicapped, rounds she's now forced to navigate by bus. Explaining her approach early on, Abby says she treats the people in her care like she would her mother, and the gorgeous scenes observing her interactions with clients ranging from friendly and grateful through difficult provide warm insight into the thoroughly decent person she is.

At the same time, the tough slog of this type of work is revealed — the unpaid travel time and flat-rate fee irrespective of the length of each visit, which can vary when unexpected complications crop up. Loach and the tremendously natural Honeywood portray Abby as a sweet-natured, uncomplaining woman, but the strain on her shows, not to mention the challenges of doing much of her parenting by phone, given the long hours of her work.

Ricky's job goes well at first, despite the difficulty of maintaining the pace of one-hour delivery windows, all regulated by a scanner, a device that becomes his lord and master. Traffic snarls, parking headaches, incorrectly addressed packages and absent recipients all create glitches, but Ricky is a tireless worker and not a whinger. That earns him points and a better route from Maloney, even as he witnesses the unsympathetic way his boss deals with drivers who bring their problems to work.

Loach and Laverty insert welcome notes of minor-key humor into this establishing section, such as Ricky getting into a slanging match with a rival football team supporter during one delivery. A weekend work day on which Liza Jane accompanies him on his route is a lovely interlude, with her quick command of the scanner wryly pointing up the generational divide in gadget mastery while their time together sketches in the uncomplicated affection of their father-daughter bond.

The increasingly late hours kept by both parents prompt Liza Jane to show her maturity at home. She's still a kid, snapping selfies like countless others, but without being told, she takes responsibility for getting Seb off to school and sends her exhausted parents to bed when they fall asleep in front of the TV. But the inexorable toll on the family's home life becomes clear as Seb's disciplinary issues at school worsen while he runs around town with a graffiti crew, spray-painting street art like an amateur Banksy. This causes explosive friction between the teen and his father, who lacks the skills to address Seb's cynicism about the narrow opportunities in his future.

Round about the midpoint, Loach quietly begins cranking up the stakes as family crises collide with work mishaps of increasing magnitude, often forcing Ricky to choose between his duties as a father and incurring fines and sanctions from the unforgiving Maloney. The boss prides himself on having some of the best figures of any depot in the country, unapologetically owning the title of "Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards" in his refusal to countenance any excuse for poor work performance. The merciless reality of becoming a cog in a machine that makes no allowances for the random difficulties life stirs up is shown will unblinking lucidity, allowing the pathos of the situations to surface without ever milking it. Indeed, the subtle use of George Fenton's score as the emotional temperature keeps being raised is a model of restraint.

A number of individual scenes late in the action are simply shattering, offering prime illustrations of what Loach does best. One is a pep talk from a genuinely concerned cop (Stephen Clegg) after Seb is caught shoplifting, in which the officer advises the teen to treat the official caution as a motivating step to alter his trajectory. Another is a furious meltdown when Abby seizes Ricky's phone and gives Maloney an earful while her husband sits banged up in a crowded hospital ER waiting area. The eloquence with which cinematographer Robbie Ryan's camera scans the faces of real people experiencing real pain speaks volumes. It hits home with brutal force that these are exactly the kinds of situations to which the gig economy is coldly indifferent.

Laverty can be forgiven an overly literal bit of dialogue in which Abby shares with Ricky a recurring dream that has them sinking into quicksand, unable to grasp the branches held out by their children. Even that on-the-nose imagery doesn't compromise the film's unimpeachable verisimilitude.

The extraordinary Hitchen, a former self-employed plumber who came to acting at age 40 and is like a blue-collar Damian Lewis, anchors the drama with wrenching authenticity, conveying all the anger and frustration and anxiety that threaten to crush Ricky's spirit and corrode the family unity he so values. Honeywood is intensely moving, kindness and common-sense intelligence embedded in her every scene, without excluding the frazzled weight of worry that wears her down. Proctor is so fresh-faced and natural you want to draw a protective circle around her as she starts shouldering responsibility for the family's problems. And Stone, who bears some physical resemblance to Barry Keoghan (from Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and has a similar, almost feral intensity, is a young talent to watch. The moments in which he drops his surly teenage attitude and reveals the loving son still intact underneath are just beautiful.

This is an expertly judged and profoundly humane movie, made without frills or fuss but startlingly direct in its emotional depiction of the tough stuff that is the fiber of so many ordinary lives, particularly in the present era of widening income inequality. You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved to your core by it.

Production companies: Sixteen Films, Why Not, Wild Bunch, BBC Films, Les Films du Fleuve, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Rob Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Ions, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Colard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg

Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Executive producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlot, Vincent Maraval
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Fergus Clegg
Costume designer: Joanne Slater
Music: George Fenton
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Casting: Kahleen Crawford
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch

100 minutes