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Ken Loach might have been better off teaching school. An 84-year-old British socialist, he can’t resist lecturing his audience; every film has a lesson. In “Poor Cow” (1967), it was poverty; in “The Navigators” (2001), it was labor rights; in “I, Daniel Blake” (2016, one of two Palme d’Ors at Cannes for Loach), it was the Kafka-esque British benefits system. In this case, the lesson is that working in the gig economy is a living hell.
Ricky's bought into the idea that he’ll be better off working for himself, being his own boss.
Married with two kids, 45-year-old Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is on the rebound from losing a series of jobs and the house, and he’s bought into the idea that he’ll be better off working for himself, being his own boss. His chosen “gig” is driver/delivery man for a parcel delivery company that is highly automated and run by a tyrannical boss (Ross Brewster) who pushes his workers relentlessly, brooks no excuses for a subpar performance or unpredictable events, and—in a throwback to the late 19th century—argues that his tactics are necessary because his “depot” is in intense regional and national competition with other depots.
Ricky’s a self-acknowledged “grafter”—British slang for a hard worker or someone who works more than one job. He believes he works harder that most—and he’s ready for a rough ride, of about a year, when, he believes, he’ll be able to pay off the too-expensive van he’s been talked into buying and “expand,” whatever that means. A poor decision-maker, he’s drunk the ideological Kool-Aid; he’s given himself to a nasty system that he thinks he can survive, and even beat.
Loach is strong on details, and some of the film’s best scenes are of Ricky’s “day at the office”: loading boxes under pressure, fretting as he is slowed by traffic, getting into time-consuming arguments with customers over soccer and other matters, and leaving “Sorry We Missed You” tags in mailboxes. Ricky’s competent, even-tempered, beatific wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), also works in the gig economy—as a contract care-giver, paid by the visit—and here, too, Loach is effective at presenting specific problems she faces: keeping on schedule while taking the bus; caring for a woman who petulantly pushes the lunch Abbie has prepared off the table; putting aroma ointment under her nose so she can deal with the feces a client leaves everywhere.
Ever the didact, Loach can’t resist tightening the screws to make his point, even if the storytelling suffers.
Despite the two incomes, life is hard, and Loach’s indictment of the gig economy reasonable enough, resonant of Amazon distribution centers, among other modern horrors. Ever the didact, Loach can’t resist tightening the screws to make his point, even if the storytelling suffers. Ricky inexplicably, and needlessly, takes on a more difficult and more time-consuming delivery route, one with more “precisors”—packages that have to be delivered at a “precise” time. His teenage slacker son Seb (Rhys Stone) gets caught shoplifting, creating all kinds of problems for the parents, whose inflexible, all-consuming work lives leave no room for visits to the police station or the principal’s office. As family arguments become heated, Loach delivers credible, realistic scenes with believable dialogue, performed by a cast of mostly newcomers and TV actors.
Throughout, neither Ricky nor Abbie has family or friends or colleagues with whom they might discuss their problems. There’s no beer with mates, no coffee with girlfriends. Their isolation may be a consequence of the gig economy, but it’s also a device for throwing everything back onto an angelic (the caring of your family is “massive,” a cop tells Seb), though resource-less family. Loach lobs other bombs at the family, making sure they can’t succeed. Keys are a theme throughout; why is there only one set of keys to the van?
Everyone expresses a desire that things be “the way they used to be” - as in before Dad took the gig job.
In the midst of all this family stress, everyone expresses a desire that things be “the way they used to be” (as in before Dad took the gig job), a refrain with echoes of Trump’s white, male, working-class supporters. Just what that would mean is not clear for Trump supporters, nor for this family. Would Ricky and his family benefit from going back to a life of odd jobs and a mortgage that can’t be paid? Loach isn’t about solutions; he’s a muckraker.
Date: 2019 (2020 US)
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster
Country: UK, France, Belgium
Runtime: 101 minutes
Awards: Nominated for Outstanding British Film of the Year, BAFTA 2020, and won and nominated for several other regional and foreign awards, including Best Actress at the Chicago International Film Festival for newcomer Debbie Honeywood.