If this week’s strike actions by Instacart shoppers, Whole Foods employees, and Amazon warehouse workers has left you unmoved, a visit to Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” might be in order. The venerable British director, still producing dramas of working-class endurance and woe at 83, addresses the gig economy in his new film. To him, it’s merely the latest name for chattel slavery.
Loach’s great gift has always been to turn ideas and ideals into deeply human stories, and “Sorry We Missed You” is no exception. The film’s central figure, a Newcastle laborer named Ricky (Kris Hitchen), is rangy and rawboned, with an appealing directness and gruff love for his family. In the opening scene, we see him being sold on a job delivering parcels for an international delivery service. The language used by his new boss (Ross Brewster) is pure new-economy double-talk: As an owner-driver franchisee, Ricky is told, ”you don’t work for us, you work with us.” He doesn’t earn wages, he makes fees. He’s not hired, he’s onboarded. “You’re master of your destiny, Ricky,” he’s assured. “Like everything around here, it’s your choice.”
With a compassion that’s at times hard to watch (and with subtitles for the thick Newcastle accents), “Sorry We Missed You” proceeds to dramatize how few choices Ricky actually has. To take the job, he has to buy a delivery van; to buy a van, he has to sell the family car that takes wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), on her rounds as an at-home caregiver; to go on her rounds, Abbie has to start taking the bus. A family that has been struggling since losing their house in the 2008 financial crash fragments further.
With a documentary realism leavened by his trademark empathy, Loach depicts the brute realities of a new society where you’re your own boss except in all the ways that matter. Tethered to a handheld scanner that charts his every movement — it beeps if he’s out of the van for more than two minutes — Ricky finds himself on a hamster wheel of 14-hour days and six-day work weeks. On his first day, a co-worker hands him an empty milk bottle for when he needs to go to the bathroom. Any family emergency that might take Ricky away from work results in a sanction and a fine, and God forbid you lose the scanner, which means more to the boss (and his bosses) than the men and women who do the work.
“Sorry We Missed You,” which has been tautly written by Loach’s longtime collaborator Paul Laverty, charts the trickle-down effect on the hero’s wife and children (and by extension, an entire class, city, society, and country). With Abbie riding the bus, she’s away from home longer, which leaves their children on their own. The pre-adolescent Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) spirals into anxiety; her teenage brother Sebastian (Rhys Stone) pushes back with rebellious bad behavior, a smart and angry young man who looks scornfully at his father and sees his own future. The movie shows the working poor on a constant brink of disaster and then says disaster is inevitable because human beings aren’t cogs no matter what the profit margin is.
Some of Loach’s movies have breathing room, but this isn’t one of them. That’s a feature, not a bug. “Sorry We Missed You” depicts the vise into which many people are forced to put head, hearts, and lives in order to pay the rent and feed their families. It dramatizes a daily sprint up an escalator that pulls workers backwards. Such grim determinism might seem a pose if it weren’t a reality for millions, including, per the end credits, “the drivers and carers who shared information with us but did not want to give their names.” Names aren’t needed when the faces Loach gives us are enough.
“Sorry We Missed You” is available through April 14 via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s “virtual screening room” at coolidge.org/films/sorry-we-missed-you. A portion of the ticket cost will go to the theater.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU
Directed by Ken Loach. Witten by Paul Laverty. Starring Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor. Available for streaming rental until April 14 at coolidge.org/films/sorry-we-missed-you. 101 minutes. Unrated (language)