Sorry We Missed You is director Ken Loach's painful and touching family story

Sorry We Missed You

MA15+, 3 Stars

Ken Loach is into his 80s now and still powers on as a firebrand for social justice with films about ordinary people who are up against the system. He has been an activist all his life, from the theatre, to TV to the cinema, and no story has been too big or too small, as long as it got the point across.

The family share a meal in Sorry We Missed You. Picture: Icon

The family share a meal in Sorry We Missed You. Picture: Icon

Loach, as director, and his frequent collaborator and screenwriter here, Paul Laverty, have a reporter's instinct for the social realist stories that will expose injustice and tell it how it is. They are directed with a naturalistic aesthetic as though they were the unvarnished truth, just like documentary.

There have been exceptions, like the charming love story Ae Fond Kiss and hallucinating soccer fandom in Looking for Eric, but Loach is strict with himself and likes to keep clear of indulgences that filmmakers allow themselves with sound, or music or special effects.

When he won the Palme d'Or at Cannes a few years ago for I, Daniel Blake, it was the second time he had received the honour. The first was a decade earlier for The Wind That Shakes The Barley, set at the time of Irish independence and the ensuing civil war.

If the accolades in 2016 were like the culmination of a life's work for Loach, and the moment to put his feet up, he didn't. The gig economy is upon us and he has found that there is still no time to rest, and with this painful and touching story about a delivery van driver and his family, it's hard not to agree. Like I, Daniel Blake, it's set in Newcastle, England.

From the moment Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) has his interview to join parcel delivery company PDF as a courier, it is impossible to imagine that things could go well for him. Predictability is the big problem here.

On the other side of the desk sits Gavin Maloney (Ross Brewster) who is right across hollow management-speak. Ricky won't be working "for" PDF, he'll be working "with" them. As an owner-driver he will get a "fee" for his services, rather than a wage, but it's all spin that hides the fact that Ricky has to put $1000 down on the van he will drive, work 12-hour shifts during which his movements will be reported by his tracker or "preciser", and he will be treated as though he has no life outside work.

To get set up with the van, Ricky and his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) must sell the car that she relies on for her work as a home-care nurse. She sees elderly clients who are difficult to manage, and now she has to take the bus. The upshot is a lot less family time with their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) and 11-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).

Kris Hitchen, left and Katie Proctor in Sorry We Missed You. Picture: Icon

Kris Hitchen, left and Katie Proctor in Sorry We Missed You. Picture: Icon

This saddens Liza while it angers Seb. He skips even more school and spends even more time on his graffiti rounds. Of all the family members impacted by Ricky's job, it is Seb's plight that speaks the loudest. Caught in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears to be heading out of school without qualifications, and set to inherit his father's disadvantage.

It's a relief when the gloom and mounting tensions clear once in a while with a family get-together over a takeaway curry when a vindaloo gets the better of Ricky and when the proud dad takes his daughter along on his delivery rounds. It is, however, only a temporary diversion with a trajectory primed from the start. There are few energising surprises here.

Were Loach to be anything other than true to his socialist worldview, we would be surprised, and he's hit on a rich, new seam here with people like Ricky who are trapped on the service economy roundabout. It also shows how, in a wider sense, workers with pride and aspiration can get crushed by an automated system which elides rights and entitlements, operates strictly by the book, and refuses to acknowledge that "service providers" have a life and responsibilities outside work.

Sorry We Missed You has that blunt urgency Loach often displays, but his actors are very good, and with this forensic job on the system, he has made his point.

This story Sorry We Missed You is bluntly urgent first appeared on The Canberra Times.