The title of Ken Loach’s latest working-class drama, Sorry We Missed You, is a reference to the notes Ricky (Kris Hitchen) leaves when he can’t complete the package deliveries on his route. But it could also refer to what Ricky and his family have missed, how despite doing everything they’re supposed to do—work hard, pay their debts, educate their children, all the things society expects—they just can’t seem to catch a break. It’s as if they missed some off-ramp on life’s road to prosperity, and now that they’re on this detour they can’t seem to find their way back.
Working with a cast of newcomers and assuming a role nearly akin to a documentarian, Loach creates a piercingly resonate story of scraping by from a script by Paul Laverty. In need of a job to support his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood), a home care worker, and two children, teenage troublemaker Seb (Rhys Stone) and tween Liza (Katie Proctor), Ricky arranges to become a driver at a local branch of shipping company. Presenting the opportunity as one of limitless potential and being one’s own boss, the foreman is actually setting Ricky up for failure under contemporary capitalism’s favorite job title, the independent contractor. He could lease a van from the company (which would include insurance coverage and maintenance), but that’s nearly three times more expensive each month than investing in one outright, even if it does mean he’s on the hook for everything that comes with it. So he convinces Abby to sell her car to come up with the £1,000 for the deposit, even it means she’ll have to rely on the bus to get her to and from her client’s homes.
As he learns the ropes of his new job, he also discovers just how much effort it will take to earn a living wage, and how thin his margin for error is—when a fellow driver asks for a few hours off to get his van repaired, the foreman nearly loses it and the confrontation quickly escalates. It’s all too familiar, reminiscent of the real-life stories about the unrealistic quotas from data-driven companies like Amazon and UPS, where performance is based on number of boxes shipped per hour and GPS tracks every package from warehouse to doorstep. While he’s working long days in order to meet the company’s high expectations, Abby’s doing noble but taxing work of her own caring for the elderly and infirm in their homes. Whether it’s making dinner and settling someone in for the night or arriving early enough to wake them and get their day started, she provides a level of care that’s part medical, part hospitality and part therapist.
With his parents distracted by stressful, demanding work, Seb is skipping school and getting into trouble spraying graffiti on abandoned billboards, shoplifting and getting into fights. And little Liza is stoically holding down the fort at home, living a latch-key kid life making microwave meals for herself and cleaning up the late dinner dishes after her parents have fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV. The dynamic between the four of them is fraught, and understandably so; every stride they make towards prosperity is undermined by unforeseen circumstances or their own ill-informed choices. But they’re also the definition of a family unit, undeniably in it together even as they fight or let each other down.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Ricky and Abby work so hard for so little, their relationship with each other and their children fracturing under the pressure of it all. What’s worse is knowing just how real their struggle is, that it’s the experience of so many working class families that can’t catch (or earn) a break no matter how hard they work. And every day that Ricky can’t get ahead is one that chips away at his self worth, making it nearly impossible to feel like a provider, like he can set a good example for his kids, Seb slipping away and Liza desperate to keep the peace. Loach’s cast of relatively inexperienced actors (Hitchen and Honeywood only have a few credits to their names; it’s the only credit for Stone and Proctor) serves him well; there’s zero pretense or inauthenticity here. Hitchen is a bit of a working man’s Damian Lewis, every bit as intense, and Honeywood’s sweetness is nearly distracting until it all becomes too much for her and we truly see what she’s made of.
Sorry We Missed You is a stark, dispiriting story, even more poignant as unemployment numbers rise to astronomical highs in recent weeks and it’s anyone’s guess how the hardest working among us will be impacted by this latest storm of economic distress. Like I, Daniel Blake before it, Loach has created a devastatingly affecting portrait of life against a system and circumstances that don’t make it easy to get ahead populated by characters so vividly realized they could be your neighbors.
The movie is now streaming as part of Music Box Theatre’s virtual screening room.