“Are you going to pay us my extra hour?” Abby confronts her employer over the phone. “You know I can’t do that, Abby,” they reply. She shoots back, “But you still expect us to clean up all the mess in the short space of time that we get.”
That exchange neatly summarizes Ken Loach’s powerful new film Sorry We Missed You, the story of a northern English family left behind by the changing economy. For them, the Great Recession never ended: It’s been 2009 for a decade and counting, and the struggle to stay hopeful – and above water – just keeps on getting harder.
Directed by Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, Sorry We Missed You succeeds in walking a fine line between gritty realism and morality play. Sincere yet restrained, it manages to explore larger themes of social mobility, labor rights and the power of technology through the family life of its protagonists. Though mired in tragedy, Sorry We Missed You is not disheartening; it is an exposé on abandonment that never abandons its characters.
Set in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Turner family is at the heart of the film: Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is a caregiver and Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has just taken a gig job as a van driver for a parcel delivery service. Their already crushing schedules continue to worsen, leaving them with even less time to spend with one another and their two teenage children, Liza (Katie Proctor) and Seb (Rhys Stone). Liza is sprightly and organized, returning home on time after school and documenting her punctuality with a cheerful selfie. The slightly older Seb, however, has been skipping school on and off for weeks. A talented graffiti artist, he refuses to end up like his parents and doesn’t see why he should bother with college: all the graduates he knows are stuck in mediocre jobs to pay off their student loans.
The tension mounts when Seb is arrested for shoplifting and faces a criminal record unless his father picks him up. Despite steep penalties from his employer, Ricky ditches work to save his son. While at the station, a constable urges Seb to “grab ahold of this chance” and turn his life around. Heartfelt and genuine, it nonetheless mirrors the film’s opening scene when Ricky is sold the idea of a zero-hour contract as if it were an amazing opportunity. You’ll be “master of your own destiny, Ricky,” says Maloney, Ricky’s boss and the closest thing the film has to a villain. “It sorts the losers from the warriors.” Maloney is manipulative, whereas the policeman seeks to inspire. By using similar phrases in both scenes, the difference in motive is clear and painful to watch.
Tonally, Sorry We Missed You fully commits to its story. Though saturated in greys, Newcastle radiates a kind of pastoral warmth. The camera work, courtesy of Robbie Ryan, is unassuming – standard setups that often simply follow the characters unobtrusively, emphasizing the common acts of everyday. This unembellished approach is further reinforced by the lack of music: George Fenton’s mournful score isn’t heard until the credits and the only songs are either sung by one of Abby’s clients or played over a car stereo. Each scene relies completely on natural sound, denying the viewer an emotional guide and letting the action speak for itself.
By the end, Sorry We Missed You has gathered meaning far beyond the notes Ricky leaves on the door when a customer isn’t home: an empty apology by an uncaring system that puts profits over people and a deep cry of regret by the status quo’s enablers, who failed to care when it mattered most. “Some people can’t see what’s in front of them,” Seb tells a friend. Sorry We Missed You does everything it can to avoid pontificating; by resisting the urge, it allows us to see what’s ahead, leaving room to hope.
(Fotos: © Filmladen Filmverleih)