Sorry We Missed You (19, B)

Like On a Magical Night, I missed this because (if I remember correctly) it only played at CIFF over the weekend that I had to flee the state for personal reasons Friday-thru-Sunday. I can’t say what made me so eager to see this – I know Ken Loach’s reputation well but have only seen his previous film, I, Daniel Blake, and walked away stunned by Hayley Squires’s harrowing performance but mostly wishing Loach had any sense of modulating major and minor scenes, and wanting more from the male lead, and wondering how it won the Palme d’Or in such a stacked year at Cannes. As if recognizing this cruelty, Loach announced that Sorry We Missed You would be his last film to premiere at Cannes. I’d guess the hook of seeing such a modern labor drama would be the reason I was so attracted to it, yet I can’t say that inspired me to rush out to it when it finally did become available. So who knows. But here we are, perhaps not arriving with the enthusiasm I had going into Ghost Tropic but arriving nonetheless.

Our center for Sorry We Missed You is Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchens), the head of a nuclear family who begins this story interviewing for a job at a delivery company. The boss, Mahoney (Ross Brewster), quickly hires him as a self-employed driver despite Kris having no professional experience as a driver and minimal educational skills under his belt. Mahoney pitches the job as giving Kris the tools to be his own boss, an idea that feels swiftly and painfully undercut once Kris is required to either buy a van from the company or rent one somewhere else in order to make deliveries. To be able to afford this freedom, he asks his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood, who won Best Actress at CIFF) to sell the family car, which will directly make it harder for her to fulfill her own job as a home care nurse. Ricky repeats for Abby a couple of the talking points Mahoney gave him but also slightly embellishes them, even as he says the fruits of his labor will be fulfilled in a year, and they’ll really start paying off in two years. This will also make it harder for them to transport their kids, teenaged Seb (Rhys Stone) and preteen Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), and the gruesome hours of their work mean they’ll be seeing Seb and Liza Jane even less than normal.

Loach is as bluntly angry here as he was in I, Daniel Blake, though the first half hour of Sorry We Missed You establishes a much more layered scenario than the previous film. An early shot of the company’s drivers lining up to get their scanners before driving off in the morning is reminiscent to the image of factory workers lining up to clock in for the day. Another scene, soon after this, sees a driver asking if he can repair his truck on company time after it got slightly damaged on the previous day’s route. Mahoney says the repair should’ve been taken care of before he came into work, and the self-employed worker has his route taken from him and given to Ricky. The man is so outraged he attacks Mahoney and is taken from the building. Already the film highlights the inherent false security used to lure in “self-employed” workers while linking this very modern setup to historical, long-standing arguments and practices about the exploitation of workers. The film’s arguments carry an even heavier scale than expected, and the early scenes benefit immensely from illustrating that the Turners, who lost their home and their jobs in the 2008 crash, have become lost not in the maw of a new creature but something older and more chameleonic.

This sense of scope doesn’t just encompass gestures towards the past but to other, present threads, giving Abby’s treks to work and duties with her clients a near-equal foothold in the narrative. The differences in personability, care, pressure, outside interference, and individual struggle between both parents’ clients offers a real boon to the portrait of their work lives. Sorry We Missed You has an unexpectedly elliptical structure, rotating its focus among each member of the Turner family, and the film benefits enormously from the gradations it gives these encounters. Jonathan Morris’s editing arguably goes the farthest in this department, giving Sorry real momentum while showing smart instincts on when to repeat certain visual geometries of blocking and camera angles in specific settings versus when to disrupt them entirely. Seb and Liza Jane even possess their own credible pulls on the film’s attention, each getting a few scenes to show how they’re spending their time while Mom and Dad are pulling fourteen hour shifts. Both kids are legitimately bothered by their parents’ absences, acting out in ways that jeopardize their own futures and the family’s writ large, though even in these most disastrous moments Loach is able to show the Turner’s lives without blaming them for their responses to a decidedly unwinnable situation.

Still, if anything can be said against Sorry We Missed You, it’s that after a certain point the layers and variation that make it so compelling start to recede. In a sense, the film is still exactly what it promises to be: a portrait of a man crushed by what is very likely the best, maybe even the only ready chance of providing for his family. But for a long time Loach lets the film be more than that, up until a bleak twist of fate in the last third. Ricky is forced to miss two days of work  due to family trouble without finding a replacement driver for his route, loading him with demerits and fines. He doesn’t even get to resolve these issues, going back to work with some very open psychic wounds throbbing at home only to be caught by surprise in a crueler, more humiliating defeat. By the time he drives his truck into the sunrise in the last seconds of the film, Ricky’s station reads like indentured servitude. 

It’s a valid way for Loach to dramatize this crisis, and it might play even better if his focus didn’t shut out the other character’s perspectives so dramatically. The interest Sorry displays in Ricky’s wife and children becomes reoriented around how their choices affect him, rather than framing them as equally central in orienting the film’s events. More troublingly, a lot of the modulations in tone and incident fade, not just stranding the actors but casting retroactive suspicion on their talents in earlier scenes. Ross Brewster’s casually unyielding boss emerges as such a striking figure that it’s disappointing the film doesn’t lean on him more. By contrast, Debbie Honeywood’s soft-spoken turn starts feeling a bit rote, conjuring basically the same mood for the whole film. There’s not no variation – she gets a great scene upbraiding Ricky for reacting so badly towards their son’s obvious attempts to rile him when he should be de-escalating the whole damn thing – but it’s not enough to plant the seeds that’d justify the despondent blow-up Abby gets during a trip to the hospital. What are we left with but the first of so many actresses who pipped Alfre Woodard’s sublime turn in Clemency for less deserving work? Kris Hitchens winds up delivering the film’s strongest performance, not just by varying the pitch and size of his acting but in carefully negotiating Ricky’s anger, exhaustion, honesty, deception, and good humor. He’s a dedicated family man, and a committed employee who cannot understand why his already grueling job cannot conceive of making it easy for him to spend them raising his children.

So, maybe Loach has not left behind an indelible modern treatise about economic despair in the new millennium. I can’t imagine debuting this strong, somewhat workmanlike drama next to the tilt-a-whirl of elastic tones and carefully calculated madness provided by Parasite’s excoriating critiques and expect to walk away being lauded as the more inventive, unique vision of the two. Still, even if Sorry We Missed You could certainly withstand some touching up, it also shows a credible portrait of a working class family losing their last scraps of autonomy and stability. At times, it’s able to depict how these events are felt by each family member as individuals, as how a husband and wife try to remain close each other despite spending so much time apart, how parents relate to children who aren’t sure how to prepare for the world ahead of them (if they see anything worth preparing for), how siblings see their responsibilities to each other with no one else to give them attention. Clearly I got more out of this or saw more than I might be giving it credit for, given how long this review is. But for all its flaws and slightly colorless approach, it’s tough and considerate where I, Daniel Blake barreled forward with unearned gumption and sentiment. Maybe it won’t change your world, but it’ll stay with you longer than you might expect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s