Backed by a cast of relative unknowns, director Ken Loach delivers a story true to those living on the margins. The filmmaker’s latest work is set in Newcastle, a city in Northeast England, but without the accents and references to soccer, it could just as easily be set in New Haven, a city in the American Northeast. Loach and writer Paul Laverty empathize with members of the shrinking middle class who are casualties of globalization and negligent labor laws.
After years of slacking coworkers and domineering supervisors, Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) wants to be his own boss. He takes a job interview with Maloney (Ross Brewster) at Parcels Delivered Fast! (PDF). At PDF, Ricky is an independent franchisee, exempting the company from any liability or labor restrictions. Abbie, a home care nurse and Ricky’s wife, works under similar stipulations for a government-contracted health care service. When Seb (Rhys Stone), the couple’s teenage son, stops going to school and starts getting in trouble with the law, Ricky and Abbie aren’t able to get time off to set Seb straight.
Loach has diagnosed and documented social and political plights over the course of his six-decade career in television and film. The 84-year-old director is as keenly aware of the issues plaguing his countrymen as when he started his film career with Poor Cow in 1967. Americans will recognize Sorry We Missed You’s themes of labor exploitation as a world-wide problem. PDF could just as easily substitute for Uber, Amazon, or a food-delivery service.
Sorry We Missed You’s Turner family struggles with debt. The family’s lone luxury is a set of four smartphones—one for each of the three aforementioned family members, and one for Seb’s younger sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor). Smartphones aren’t a luxury so much as a necessity, and a rare glimpse at the normalcy of middle-class life they once enjoyed. The family indulges in the occasional take-out meal, but even that is unsustainable for hard-working Ricky and Abbie.
Ricky subscribes to the so-called “bootstrap mentality,” the belief that anyone can succeed with enough effort, desire, and commitment. At PDF, Ricky quickly realizes that his financial success is not among the company’s primary or secondary goals. In fact, Ricky’s prosperity runs counter to the underlying objective: enriching the company’s leadership and its shareholders. When emergencies prevent the drivers from working, PDF fines them and takes away their relatively lucrative delivery routes. Without a labor union to protect them, the drivers can be forced to work 14 consecutive days without time off.
Although Sorry We Missed You spends less time with Abbie, her workplace is no fairer than PDF. Abbie takes a bus from client to client; her travel time and bus fares are not reimbursed. Abbie prides herself in treating her clients as if they were her own mother. When a client requires more time than is scheduled, Abbie must take personal time to tend to them or leave them in substandard care. “What happened to the eight-hour day?” muses one of her patients.
Loach and Laverty lovingly depict the full lives of the Turner family, Abbie’s clients, and Ricky’s delivery customers. Without formal training or education beyond a high school diploma, Ricky and Abbie are adrift. Ricky and Abbie’s underhanded employers dare them to find better employment elsewhere, wringing every cent from them before they burn out. The circumstances are unique, but the story is all too familiar for working-class families. The care with which the situation is depicted is a credit to its cast and crew.