“I have horrible dreams. We’re sinking in the quicksand and the kids are trying to pull us out with a branch. But it just seems like the more we work and the more hours we do, we just sink further and further into this big hole.” ~ ‘Sorry We Missed You’
Ken Loach has been sounding the alarm about economic inequality since his debut film Poor Cow in 1967.
Inspired by the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, which portrayed the economic plight of the working-class in the style of social realism, Loach established himself as an important auteur with Kes (1969). The film follows a working-class Yorkshire boy who spends his free time tending to his pet kestrel. What it’s actually about, though, are the dead-end lives miners in Northern England lead, and the despair of the children who are brought up in that environment.
Loach’s slice-of-life dramas shine a light on working-class families left behind by Britain’s economy. The films use the doomed fates of specific characters to make a larger point about the working-class as a whole. They use real locations and nonprofessional actors to achieve a level of authenticity not seen in escapist entertainment. Some films entertain. Loach’s films enlighten.
Throughout his career, Loach has kept his camera on the working-class. Each film is another portrait of struggle as Loach portrays the lives of people often underrepresented in cinema. Sweet Sixteen (2002), for example, is about a troubled teenager caught up in a life of crime, and I, Daniel Blake (2016) is about an old man denied ESA by the government. Like the Italian neorealists before him, Loach proves that the personal is political, and that the stories of the working-class are just as worthy as the Royals, if not more so.
Without Loach, we wouldn’t have Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold, whose films Naked (1993) and Fish Tank (2009) defined their generation of British filmmakers. It’s a powerful reminder that cinema is a continuum, and the kitchen-sink drama still holds a central place in British storytelling. The situations may change, but the core issues remain. The sociopolitical statements still need to shouted from the rooftops.
Sorry We Missed You (2019) is one of Loach’s most powerful films. It’s somewhat depressing that Loach, now 84, has been telling the same story for over 50 years, and his films are just as relevant today as they were when he started in the 1960s. Still, it’s reassuring that he hasn’t turned his back on the people for whom he’s long advocated, and that even in old age, he’s tuned into what’s happening in their lives.
Sorry We Missed You can be situated within the kitchen-sink tradition, but its particular concerns are contemporary. With a story about one working-class family in Newcastle, Loach takes on the gig economy and the dubious promise of “self-employment,” which gives workers the false illusion of control and choice, all while stripping away their basic workers’ rights.
Neoliberalism, which can broadly be understood as the expansion of deregulation, privatization, and austerity through free-market capitalism, is the cause of such inequality. In a society that eradicates the welfare state and embraces a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, families have no choice but to take whatever scraps they’re given to survive.
In this case, Sorry We Missed You follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a family man with no education or professional training, who is hired to “own” a franchise as a self-employed delivery driver. In the early scenes, his tough supervisor Maloney (Ross Brewster) explains the terms: “You don’t get hired here, you come on board. We like to call it onboarding. You don’t work for us, you work with us. You don’t drive for us, you perform services. There’s no employment contracts, no performance targets, you meet delivery standards. There’s no wages, but fees. No clocking on, you become available. You sign up with us, you become an owner-driver franchisee. Master of your own destiny, Ricky.”
It all seems too good to be true. For a start, in order to afford a van for the job, Ricky has to sell the family car. This means his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) now has to take the bus to work.
Abbie is a home-care worker on a “zero-hour contract.” She’s not paid for break time, travel time, sick days, or vacation. Like Ricky, she’s made to believe that she can be the master of her own destiny and turn down any visit, but it becomes abundantly clear that with no one else to step in, her patients need her and she’s too good-hearted to say no. Relying on the bus to travel from patient to patient, Abbie’s job is more exhausting than ever.
Their two children Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza (Katie Proctor) are mostly left to fend for themselves, not because Ricky and Abbie aren’t loving, but because they’re working late hours. We see the impact this has on the children. Seb causes trouble with his friends and skips class. Liza struggles to sleep at night and often stays up past her bedtime, waiting for her mom to come home from work and kiss her goodnight.
This is a tight-knit family being torn apart by financial stress. Ricky and Abbie don’t own anything and have long talked about buying a house. They hope Ricky’s new job will allow them to save up and stop renting once and for all. Their demanding work schedules don’t leave much room for spontaneity. When they come home after a long day, they pass out on the couch with the television still on.
In one tender scene, Abbie bonds with a patient, an ailing older woman who stands in as a mother figure for her. Abbie gets personal and shares her family’s photo album with the patient. We learn that she and Ricky have been struggling since the 2008 financial crash. Abbie has hopes and dreams, but not enough happy memories. The last time she had fun was before the kids came, when she and Ricky used to go to raves together. Since then, she doesn’t have much to show. No vacation photos, no family outings. Her life has been a constant blur of work and sleep, stress and struggle.
In another touching scene, Liza joins Ricky on the job one Saturday afternoon. As the father and daughter drive across Newcastle to drop off packages, it becomes apparent that this a form of family bonding. In a quietly heartbreaking moment, Liza and Ricky take a break and have lunch together. “Thanks for the great day,” she says, “Can we do it again?” For Liza, it’s worth spending her Saturday driving delivering packages if it means she can spend some quality time with her dad.
That night, after ordering Indian take-out (a special treat for this family), Abbie is called into work for a patient emergency. She’s obliged to help, and to keep the good times going, the entire family hops in Ricky’s van and drives with Abbie to the patient’s house, singing their favorite songs along the way.
The warm scenes of family bonding show their closeness, but Loach is wise not to shy away from the sad realities of their circumstance, namely, that time spent together is a precious luxury they often don’t have.
By the end of Sorry We Missed You, we’re left with Loach’s scathing critique of today’s gig economy, which promises convenience to the consumer at the expense of workers’ rights. When we witness this family struggle to survive and see the final decision Ricky makes after a series of hardships, we’re confronted with the price we all pay in the name of a profit.
It’s a harsh realization, but it’s a realization worth repeating: In a neoliberal system, there’s no concern for the working-class. “Self-employment” doesn’t deliver on its promise of more choice and control. Instead, workers who get caught up in the gig economy are more confined than they’ve ever been.
It’s hard to tell how all this is going to end. In the United States, things were so bad under Trump that the election of anyone else, including Joe Biden who will likely continue to champion neoliberal policies, has been met with celebration. Sure, Trump may be out of office, but Uber and Lyft’s victory with Proposition 22 in California shouldn’t make any of us excited for the future. The gig economy isn’t going away. If anything, corporations are only going to gain more power, and workers’ rights are going to be whittled down with each coming day.
It isn’t much better in England or anywhere else. Across the world, families are scraping by just to put food on the table, as my parents once did not so long ago. They work thankless jobs for long hours and lousy pay, all for the promise of a better life. They’re tired, they’re fed up, and every night before they pass out from exhaustion, they wonder when, if ever, they’re going to reach the promised land.
For over 50 years, Loach has been telling the story of working-class despair. We know how it ends. With each heartbreaking film, we see that these families never get there. As long as neoliberalism remains the dominant ideology, they will stay stagnant, no matter how hard they try to get ahead. How many more families need to suffer, and how many more stories need to be told, for people to learn the lesson?